Montessori and Head Start
This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of MontessoriPublic — Print Edition.
A perfect match, yet so few and far between
by David Ayer
It’s often been observed in Montessori circles that we have, on the one hand, federally funded early childhood education and care in this country in the form of Head Start, and on the other, a globally-recognized, highly-articulated education model for young children in the form of Montessori. So why isn’t there more Montessori in Head Start?
Head Start was launched in 1965 (ten years before the first public Montessori school opened in Cincinnati, Ohio) as a “catch-up” eight-week summer program to help low-income children learn what they needed to start elementary school. The program grew over the years and decades, extending to full-year and multi-year programs, adding health and nutrition components, and really taking off in terms of funding and enrollment in the 1990s through the early 2000s before leveling off. Today, the program serves more than one million children each year with a budget of just over ten billion dollars.
At the same time, there exist just a tiny handful of Montessori Head Start programs—that is, programs implementing Montessori as the main curriculum and serving children funded through Head Start (sometimes intermixed with children funded through other funding streams).
One organization doing great work in this area is the Trust for Learning, a non-profit originally founded to organize philanthropic support for “developmentally appropriate, play-based, whole-child early learning approaches like Montessori.” The Trust has coined the term Ideal Learning to gather together early childhood approaches including Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Friends Center for Children, Tools of the Mind, Bank Street College of Education, and Waldorf, and supports the Ideal Learning Head Start Network to facilitate integration of these approaches into Head Start. Annie Frazer, Executive Director of Montessori Partnerships for Georgia and the Director of the Ideal Learning Head Start Network was able to help me identify just eight Montessori Head Start programs.
There are some misconceptions in the Montessori community about the challenges to integrating the two systems. I had heard that Head Start requires a particular curriculum, and Montessori isn’t on the list, but this is not the case, at least as far as federal funding is concerned. (Head Start grantees, who actually direct the funds in local communities may have requirements, but they don’t come from Head Start.) Programs do have to align their curricula with the Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework (ELOF), but this is not an unrealistic goal (as the forthcoming NCMPS Montessori Curriculum Standards Alignment will show).
One also hears that the additional services required by Head Start (such as health, nutrition, and family support) or government bureaucracy are too much for Montessori schools to take on. It’s true that Head Start is more than education, and there is red tape to contend with. But after all, Montessori public schools are often already providing services beyond education and dealing with government regulations, so this can’t be the only thing keeping Head Start and Montessori apart.
The biggest obstacles turn out to be funding (as always) and full Montessori implementation, specifically including five-year-olds (“kindergarten age” children) in a program designed to serve younger children. To understand this a little better, we’ll have to get into the details of how these programs actually work.
Head Start is designed to be a locally-administered program—it’s federally funded, but in practice the program disburses funds to more than 2000 “grantees” across the country. These are organizations—sometimes school districts, but more often local social service agencies—which operate programs themselves or partner with local providers. Eight Montessori programs Frazer identified work with Head Start in one of two ways.
The simplest way is to be a direct grantee:
The Iberville Parish School District in Louisiana operates ten or so Montessori Primary classes with a full age range, including three- and four-year-olds funded by Head Start, four-year-olds funded through Louisiana PreK; and kindergarten children funded through the district.
Baldwin County Schools in Georgia is also a direct Head Start grantee, but serves only three- and four-year olds in its Montessori-Head Start classrooms
Lumin Education in Dallas, Texas, is a direct Early Head Start grantee and serves children from 18 months to three at Lumin Bachman Lake Community School (one of three Lumin campuses).
Other programs partner with a grantee to provide services:
The Montessori School of Englewood, a charter school in Chicago, partners with City of Chicago Health and Human Services to serve three- and four-year olds with Head Start funds and five-year-olds from their charter school budget (which includes fundraising), combined in the same classroom.
The Montessori American Indian Child Care Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, partners with a grantee to serve three- and four-year olds with Head Start funds and five-year-olds with other fundraising, in a Montessori-based program dedicated to preserving and revitalizing indigenous culture.
Family Star Montessori in Denver, Colorado, partners with grantee Denver Great Kids Head Start to serve three- and four-year olds with Head Start funds and five-year-olds with other fundraising.
Discovery Multiple Intelligences Preschool in Scranton, Pennsylvania, is an independent “Montessori and Multiple Intelligences” preschool which partners with the Scranton Lackawanna Human Development Agency to provide 15 Head Start seats in a school of 60 children.
Premier Academy in Atlanta partners with direct grantees Easter Seals of North Georgia and YMCA of Metro Atlanta and offers Montessori to 3-4 year olds only at this time. 12 of the 15 children in their pilot Montessori class are Head Start funded.
Clearly, there are a number of different ways to implement Montessori in a Head Start context. It’s true that funding can be a challenge. Programs that accept Head Start funding often need to supplement to meet other costs. If non-Head Start children are in the classroom (young children funded by other streams, or older children funded by district, charter, or tuition sources), costs must be carefully allocated and tracked (in a “braided” stream) rather than pooled together in a single “pot” of money (a “blended” model). And compliance requirements contribute to additional expenses. A program might easily need to a create an additional administrative position just to manage the intricacies of Head Start compliance.
But as you can see even in the short list above, including “kindergarten-age” five- and-six-year-olds continues to be a significant challenge. For a district grantee, or a district partnering with a grantee, it may not be too hard to have a licensed, district-employed teacher (with appropriate Montessori training) work in a full mixed-age class, in a district building, with access to the institutional infrastructure to manage requirements and compliance. For a charter school it may be similar, but the school may have to navigate including those students in their lottery for the Kindergarten year.
For a child care operation separate from the school system, the complications multiply. A center might need to stretch already tight finances to extend the program to a third year. Or, it might need to partner with a school district for Kindergarten-year funds and a licensed teacher—an arrangement that can bring its own complications in terms of funding, agreements, supervision, etc.
And here’s the real rub: What would it take to convince an organization, or philanthropic funders, to support extending a program to the third year? In the world of philanthropy and education reform, a research study validating outcomes for that third year would be pretty helpful. Montessorians have a strong anecdotal sense that a lot happens with that third year in Primary. But how would you design that study? What would it take to put together a big enough sample to draw conclusions? And would the result—a somewhat stronger case for extending the reach of a small number of programs—make it worth taking up the task?
Even so, all is not lost. Dr. Angeline Lillard’s Hartford study saw a “dosage effect”, with greater gains the longer children stayed in Montessori, and it seems plausible that her national study, delayed by COVID but now underway, will reinforce that effect. The Trust for Learning will continue to provide institutional support. And ultimately we need to remember that for most of us, it wasn’t a randomized-controlled-trial study that won us over to Montessori. It was an experience, and a story. And those are stories and experiences we can continue to share.
David worked in private Montessori for more than twenty years as a parent, three-to-six year-old and adolescent teacher, administrator, writer, speaker, and advocate. In 2016 he began working with the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector. David lives in Portland, Oregon.