The First Montessori Public Charter School Opens in Baltimore

By Amy Landsman
The first thing staffers at the new Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School did when they took over the former Mildred Monroe Elementary School building in Baltimore this summer was rip out the green carpeting and replace it with new, environmentally friendly tile floor.
And that’s good, because instead of spending the day sitting at individual desks, Montessori students spend a lot of time on the floor. In fact, the school’s 170 students either sit at group tables or simply plop down on a rug and do their work at ground level.
In addition to the new floor, wooden cubbies replaced the battered lockers and the chalkboards disappeared. Finally, the classrooms were de-cluttered as the staff moved in lots of comfy rugs, added low shelves, and installed sturdy blonde-wood tables and chairs. Slowly but surely, this rather grim-looking building (and one-time homeless shelter) is being transformed into a cheerful home for the City’s first Montessori public charter school.

Hands-On Learning
The school currently consists of a preschool class through fourth grade. Grades five and six will be added over the next couple of years. In the classrooms, the kids work individually or in small groups. Some sit at tables, others on rugs on the floor.
One student, 9-year-old Russell, is working on math. Using small cubes to learn the concepts of number groups, he appears focused and attentive.
“I take the longer [group of cubes] and put it with the 10 and so on,” Russell says, adding, “I really like to do it.”
In another classroom, some of the students munch on pretzel sticks as they work. A boy wearing headphones plays a keyboard. Another student, 10-year-old D’Jah, circulates around the classroom asking his fellow students if they would like parts in the play he’s writing.
“My play is about a bounty hunter. It’s about a few people who are looking for the prince, and they’re searching all over the world in their time machine. They run into lots of weird people, and they help them on their journey. They run into a sheriff, a bounty hunter, a mad scientist, Shaquille O’Neill, Jedi, LeBron James, and some of the X-Men,” D’Jah cheerfully explains.
He hopes to present the play to the entire school.
In the same classroom, about a half-dozen kids sit on a rug, working on subtraction.
“Most of these children are in a passage from the concrete to the abstract,” says their teacher, Betsy Wimbrow. “They’ve had lots of experience with materials, lots of hands-on experience, and now they’re transitioning to doing it on paper. They can do addition without materials. Now they’re doing subtraction.”
Along with employing hands-on materials such as the cubes Russell uses, the Montessori method features daily peer tutoring, group work, mixed-age classrooms, and freedom- within-limits, for the children to move and talk. Each child works at his or her own pace and stays with the same teacher for three years. There is no homework.
The school’s seven teachers are all Montessori-certified, and each classroom has a teacher and an aide.
In a typical private Montessori school, by the time the students are 7 or 8, they’ve probably been in the school for two or three years and are used to the Montessori method of teaching. However, since this Baltimore school just opened in August 2008, the students have had to adjust to a new way of learning.
“It’s definitely been an adjustment for the children. A good adjustment, but it really took some time. The children were not used to making choices,” notes Allison Shecter, founder and principal of Baltimore Montessori.
She explains that, upon entering the school, many students’ communication and social skills were not well developed
perhaps because in their former schools they had less opportunity to talk casually to each other in class. Plus, the kids were used to moving at the pace set by the teacher, rather than being guided by their own interests and needs.
“We spent a long time building their trust,” she adds.
According to Shecter, the teachers also found that many of the students were behind academically, and so they have been working intensively to get the kids on track.

With a Some Help
Signing up their children for the Montessori school was a leap of faith for many of the parents, especially those who were not 100 percent familiar with the Montessori approach. Plus there’s an emphasis on parent education, and all parents are asked to put in some volunteer time.
Shecter says, “There’s just a natural family feel—a lot of collaboration and cooperation.”
"I love it," says Raven Calloway, mother of a 7-year-old girl, Zion, a student at the school.
Calloway says the teacher met with Zion even before school started to show her the classroom and to get to know her. She says Zion is a self-motivated learner who has adapted very nicely to the Montessori style.
"She's very into science and reading right now...she's always engaged," Calloway says. "I wish I was her age again!"
Calloway also praises the open communication between the parents and principal: "If you have an issue, you don't necessarily have to schedule a meeting to see her—she is very open and free to communicate."
The Montessori School receives funding from the Baltimore City Schools, as well as donations and grant money from private foundations. Loyola College in Baltimore (soon to be renamed “Loyola University Maryland”), which has a Montessori training program, has been extremely supportive.
All Maryland public school students in grades three through eight must take the Maryland School Assessments in reading and math. And Shecter says that the children at this Montessori public charter school will be as well prepared as students at any typical elementary school.
“There’s usually a question on the MSA, ‘What is poetry?’” she says. “Instead of studying the definition of poetry, in Montessori, the children are immersed in poetry and using all the vocabulary they need to understand poetry. So, when they get to that question, they really know how to answer, because they understand poetry.”
“You’re giving them a deeper understanding, so they can demonstrate what they know,” she continues. “Granted, we have to do some test prep. In Montessori, we like to look at it as [teaching] practical life skills. Kids in our society need to learn how to take a test.”
Shecter says visitors arrive skeptical and leave convinced.
“They’ll say to each other, ‘Can you imagine seeing kids working on the floor? It would just drive me crazy.’ But, in the next breath, they’ll also say, ‘Look at how engaged they are!’”
BC

For More Information
To learn more about the Baltimore Montessori School, visit the website www.baltimoremontessoriinc.com.
For information on charter schools, go to www.marylandpublicschools.org/MSDE and click on “charter schools.”

What is a Montessori School?
Montessori schools are named after Dr. Maria Montessori, the first female doctor in Italy. Born in 1870, she studied child development and developed educational materials.
In a Montessori classroom, teachers provide guidance to help the children learn self discipline and work toward independence.

What is a Charter School?
A charter school, defined by Maryland law, is a public school that is non-religious, is chosen by parents for their children, and is open to all students on a space-available basis. Admission is done through a lottery.
The local board of education must approve any new charter school. And, just like any other public school, charter schools must comply with all federal state and local anti-discrimination laws and must follow all applicable health and safety laws, according to the Maryland State Department of Education. Charter schools have the freedom to use innovative ideas, while still being accountable to the local school board.
Charter schools can be found throughout Maryland, although most are in Baltimore City, which has 25 in all.

© Baltimore's Child Inc. March 2009