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Can a (public Montessori) school encourage integration?

Garrett Heights Elementary/ Middle School

The Baltimore City school system is highly segregated. In a city that’s 63 percent black, the average school is 84 percent black. Garrett Heights Elementary Middle School in Northeast Baltimore is therefore not unusual. Around 90 percent of its students are black, though the surrounding neighborhood is more than a third white. Many of those families choose to send their children to other schools. But last year the school launched a pilot program that may begin to change that.

Garrett Heights is Baltimore’s first zoned public Montessori school. Montessori schools group different ages together and avoid direct instruction, letting children learn from materials instead. The vast majority of America’s 5,000 Montessori schools are private. So they tend to have an elitist reputation, says Garrett Heights principal Deborah Moffett. “Unfortunately, traditionally, Montessori has been a buzz term around, you know, higher socioeconomic groups of people,” she says.  

But Moffett says the approach works well with a classroom of students from all backgrounds, and could help Garrett Heights address low enrollment and below-average test scores. 

“What I think is going to be very beneficial for our students in Montessori is that in Montessori we meet each individual child where they are and we move them from there. I may come in as a little one and not maybe have the vocabulary development of the child beside me but because the teacher's working right with me, I'm going to catch up and then I’m going to keep on going instead of waiting for my little small group to move up.”

Total enrollment at Garrett Heights has grown since the switch to Montessori, and the principal, who is white, says she’s seeing more white faces in the classroom.

“What I hope is that the school, as it's a neighborhood school, will reflect the neighborhood,” she says. “I don't see that right now in the school.”

Yale University sociologist Mira Debs studies public Montessoris. She says that decades ago, many cities used Montessori explicitly to integrate schools. “A program that could act as a magnet that could attract and retain middle class families, and particularly middle class white families, was something that districts all around the country were trying to do in the early 1970s,” she says, “so Montessori was seen as one of the means of doing that. “

Debs says public Montessoris did attract white students. But communities do not always welcome the new curriculum. “A response from a Montessori educator saying, ‘Well, we'll just let the child figure it out. They’ll learn at their own pace’ may be different than a parent who has a perspective like ‘Education is incredibly urgent. I want my child to be held up to a standard and I want to ensure that the teacher is going to get them there in this particular amount of time,’” she says.

Garrett Heights alum and PTA Vice President Darryl Tarter, who is black and has a daughter in the 3rd grade at the school, says he values the independence Montessori fosters. But because the program is a pilot, he has some concerns. “We don’t want our kids being guinea pigs, that’s the issue,” he says. Many Montessori programs end by middle school, which also worries Tarter. “My biggest concern is the adjustment from the Montessori back to traditional,” he says. “Because you don’t get a lot of homework, you really get a lot of freedom to kind of do what you want within structured guidelines. Traditional is not like that.”

It’s too early to say how the Montessori pilot program at Garrett Heights Elementary Middle School will affect student performance. The same goes for demographics. At least for now, the student body remains predominantly black.

Education reporting on wypr is supported in part by the Sylvan-Laureate Foundation.

Andrea no longer works for On The Record.
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