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School Choice & Charters Opinion

Can a Network of Tiny, Teacher-Led Montessoris Spread Like Wildflowers?

What these schools emphasize could offer lessons for public schools
By Rick Hess — November 16, 2023 5 min read
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Wildflower is a network of tiny, teacher-led Montessori schools that was launched in Cambridge, Mass., in 2014, by a team that included MIT media professor Sep Kamvar and 30-year Montessori veteran Mary Rockett. Today, the network includes 60 schools across the nation, with 10 more on their way. Since 2016, the network has been led by CEO Matt Kramer, who had spent most of the previous decade leading Teach For America. I recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Matt about Wildflower’s work and what they’ve learned. Here’s what he had to say.

—Rick

Rick: So, Matt, what makes Wildflower distinctive?

Matt: Each Wildflower Montessori school is created and led by a pair of teachers, operates in a community-embedded space—like a shopfront or a community center—and serves an intentionally diverse, mixed-age group of around 25 children across a three-year grade span. While our schools are similar in many ways, the Wildflower model invites founding teacher leaders to express a strong point of view in the design of their schools, which leads to significant variation. Schools can be organized as one-room schools under a multisite shared charter or as legally independent nonprofit licensed child-care centers or independent schools.

Rick: Can you tell me a bit about the network and your students?

Matt: We’re up to 61 schools in 16 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Seventy percent serve the classic Montessori “children’s house” ages—children 3–6 years old. Twenty-two percent serve zero–3-year-olds, twenty-four percent serve elementary-aged students, and one is a high school. Some schools have two rooms and serve more than one three-year age span. Our current capacity is 1,800 kids.

Rick: How do you decide where to locate new schools?

Matt: Communities choose us more than we choose them. Each school starts as a conversation between teachers and parents that can build slowly over years before gaining focus and taking shape as a school that reflects its founders and its community. We’ve also worked with local educators and residents in Colorado, Minnesota, New York, and the District of Columbia to secure charters that enable the start of five to fifteen new sites.

Rick: Who winds up founding these schools? Do your leaders have much experience with the Montessori model?

Matt: Wildflower’s teacher leaders are an extraordinary and diverse group of Montessorians with deep roots in their communities and strong perspectives about the educational experiences they want to offer. Nearly half are people of color. In a typical pair of founders, at least one has five to 10 years of experience as a lead Montessori guide.

Rick: Obviously, there are a lot of school models that operate under the umbrella notion of “Montessori.“ Can you talk a bit about the specific approach you all use?

Matt: The Montessori name isn’t trademarked, and schools can use the name to describe their educational methods—as we do—or more generally a child-centered philosophy. Wildflower schools use “authentic Montessori” methods: fully Montessori-trained teachers, complete sets of Montessori educational materials, uninterrupted three-hour work blocks every day during which children have the freedom to choose their work and move around, etc.

Rick: Our kids were in Montessori when the pandemic hit, and we found that their schools had a really tough time moving that kind of teaching online. I’m curious what your experience was like.

Matt: The pivot to online was indeed tough, especially because almost all our schools serve young children. Our teacher leaders took different approaches: reopening immediately to serve the children of essential workers, evolving into “forest schools” operating entirely outdoors, dropping off weekly boxes of learning materials at children’s homes. Most returned to in-person school as soon as possible.

Rick: What’s the cost per pupil to operate Wildflower? Do families pay tuition? How do you all make the numbers work?

Matt: On average, it might cost $250,000–$300,000 to run a school serving 25 kids ages 3–6, which is $10,000–$12,000 per child. However, it varies from city to city based on cost of living since the two biggest expenses are the teacher leaders’ own salaries and rent. Charter schools rely on public funding; in other schools, families pay tuition based on what they can afford, supplemented by government child-care subsidy programs or vouchers for lower-income families. In a typical noncharter school, between one-third and one-half of families pay full tuition, and one-third pay little or nothing.

Rick: Can you talk about any of the research or outcomes that offer a window into what we know about your effectiveness?

Matt: There’s a fair amount of evidence about the effectiveness of high-fidelity Montessori programs. We place a lot of trust in families’ perspectives on whether a school is working for their children, and our networkwide family Net Promoter Scores (i.e., satisfaction) are consistently in the mid-80s. Though we are mindful of their limitations, we also use standardized assessments of early math, literacy, and executive functioning, with enrolled children growing more than would be expected—though the benchmarks from the last few years are pretty unusual.

Rick: What’s ahead for Wildflower Schools?

Matt: We continue to hear from many prospective teacher leaders and families that want to see more Wildflower schools. In five years, there should be more than 200 schools. To make that happen, we need to develop more sustainable ways to provide educators with the roughly $250,000 it costs to start each new Wildflower school. We recently received certification from the U.S. Department of Treasury as a Community Development Financial Institution, and we’re exploring partnerships with banks, employers, real estate investors, and philanthropists that we hope will enable us to keep up with the interest from communities and educators.

Rick: Once upon a time, you were a McKinsey consultant. With that experience, as you look forward, do you see obvious opportunities for Wildflower schools to help meet unmet needs?

Matt: Wildflower schools can fill niches that can’t sustain larger schools. For example, tiny schools in rural communities could serve more focused geographic areas than big schools, allowing for more community connection and less busing. Tiny schools can also offer language-immersion programs for languages that might not attract enough enrollment to fill a full-size school. In the coming years, I hope we’ll see more of these child- and community-centered ideas that might normally get filtered out by enrollment fears brought to life as Wildflower schools.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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