Denver High School Takes Its Cues From Montessori

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — May 26, 2016 5 min read
Montessori schools, such as Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High School, generally place a premium on student individuality, as reflected in a row of lockers at the Denver school.

On a brisk spring morning, two middle schoolers were screwing pieces of plywood together to create a garden bed on the campus of a former elementary school in the north end of the city. Working under the watchful eyes of the school’s staff farmer, the students were helping to build an urban farm at Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High School, which moved into the building this school year.

Inside the school, a room called “the commons” buzzed with middle schoolers working in small groups on math problems. Some worked on computers, while others gathered at a white board with a teacher. Several more students pored over work in pairs or by themselves. And, across the hall, close to two dozen freshmen sat around a U-shaped table and took notes as a classmate moderated a series of debates about current events.

All this activity is part of the regular school day at Denver’s first public Montessori secondary program. The school opened three years ago, and officials plan to eventually educate grades 7-12 from around the city.

Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High School is among a growing number of public secondary schools in the United States that are extrapolating from the writings of Maria Montessori to develop programs for adolescents. Of the 20 public Montessori high schools in the 50 states and Puerto Rico as of May, five have opened in the previous three years, according to the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector. Several other school districts, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., are investigating opening their own programs.

Most Montessori public schools find themselves walking a tightrope as they balance the method’s focus on authentic work and on allowing individual students to develop at their own pace against the curricular and accountability requirements of public school systems. At the high school level, those demands are heightened by the need to prepare students for college or other postsecondary options.

But advocates argue that the approach is particularly well-suited to educating young people who can function well in college and the real world.

“The misconception is that students can do whatever they want,” said Katy Myers, the founding principal of the Denver Montessori secondary school. “We hold our kids to the highest expectations, … and our kids come out knowing how to talk to adults, knowing how to self-advocate, knowing how to do independent research, and knowing they’re in charge of their learning.”

On the Farm

Maria Montessori, the early-20th-century Italian physician upon whose work and writings Montessori schools are based, wrote extensively about the development of children up until the age of 12. Montessori primary schools draw from a well-established set of practices, materials, and writings. But the physician’s only writings about older teenagers are in a single essay, “Erdkinder,” included as two appendices in From Childhood to Adolescence.

Montessori’s vision of an ideal site for adolescent learning: a farm, where, she believed, young people could build their independence and find a place in the social world.

Hannah Ewert-Krocker, a founding teacher at the Denver Montessori secondary school, said the goal is not to create farmers, necessarily, but to meet what Montessori saw as adolescents’ strong need to “contribute individually and collectively to their communities.” Montessori understood young people as moving through three-year “planes of development,” so a 7-12 school includes groupings of 7th to 9th graders and 10th to 12th graders.

Different schools have taken that vision more and less literally. Clark Montessori Junior/Senior High School in Cincinnati sends high schoolers on field studies throughout the year to give students that opportunity to contribute, but for much of the rest of the year has a more traditional set of classes. Other Montessori high schools offer International Baccalaureate or Advanced Placement courses. In Denver, the junior/senior high school is offering a high school curriculum that meets district requirements, but it also runs “occupations” like a bicycle-repair shop and the farm. Much of the curriculum is taught through interdisciplinary projects.

Myers said that for Montessori high schools, “the best practice is what works for that population and that location.”

Choice and Independence

Sara Suchman, the director of coaching and school services at the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector, said a combination of factors had led to recent interest in Montessori high schools. More school systems are offering families a choice of schools, including charters and innovation schools that allow for different school models. At the same time, Montessori’s focus on student-led learning is appealing to some who have balked at a sense that, in an accountability-driven system, education is being “done to them,” she said.

At the high school level, most schools are developed in response to demand from a group of parents or students who have moved through a Montessori primary program, Suchman said.

In Denver, for instance, the Montessori junior/senior high is an innovation school, which grants the school flexibility from some district policies and contract provisions. The secondary school was opened after the district had already established four public Montessori primary schools.

Christian Lobo-LaFore, a freshman moderating the current-events debates, said she had thought about attending a more traditional high school. “But I love Montessori,” she said. “I didn’t want to change.”

In practice, creating a rigorous school that reflects Montessori principles and meets state requirements hasn’t been without some bumps: In the school’s first year, in a temporary space, it earned the lowest rating on Denver’s school scorecard. And finding a school building in the fast-growing Denver public school system that could host a small farm presented political and logistical challenges.

Myers said that the school did not plan to change its approach because of test scores, which she believes will be higher this year. “We believe if we do our job well, our students will do fine,” she said.

Ewert-Krocker, the teacher, added that the school’s mission extends well beyond test scores. “The vision is so exciting and radical,” she said. “We tap into child development and the natural development of young people, and that’s how we create a more peaceful world.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 01, 2016 edition of Education Week as High School Takes Cue From Montessori

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