An Open Letter to Lakeland Montessori Schoolhouse — And Everybody Else

Dear fellow members of the Lakeland Montessori community:

There’s a parent at a well-known and well-regarded non-traditional school in Polk County whose honesty and courage I have come to admire deeply. This person knows who this person is. And it’s not important to ID him or her. Not long ago, this parent posted a piece on Facebook raising many of the same types of questions that I’ve been raising about how we educate and evaluate kids in this county and state. This parent directed the question to his or her own school. It was very gutsy and honest and led to a good discussion.

At one point in the back and forth, this parent asked another point blank: Why do you send your kid to this school?

The other parent responded: Because it holds parents accountable.

What I noticed immediately was that the other parent did not say, “Because it holds me accountable or my child accountable.”

That was fascinating and illuminating. It sort of crystallized a point I’ve been making. At some point, education in this country and county has become about other people’s kids and parents and teachers. Not our own. Everything is about what are kids are not. None of us think we need accountability, not really. It’s those other people.

I think what I’ve been trying to do in this rather pointed period of education writing is force myself and other parents of the “magnet, charter, and choice” community to demand of ourselves the same “accountability” we say we demand from the kids and schools and teachers at the traditional schools.

For the most part, my numbers and analysis suggest that if student bodies were as standardized as tests, the traditional schools would generally produce better scores than the “magnet, charter, and choice” schools. No one has made a case that begins to refute that conclusion.

And the response from charter and choice officialdom has been about what I expected, really. No factual challenge of my core conclusions; a little bit of spluttering rage; and a mountain of silence. As if my findings have zero bearing on what everyone claims they value.

I have, however, received some very positive and thoughtful feedback from Lakeland Montessori parents and staff. And I think it’s time to build on that.

First, let me answer that parent’s question and explain why my wife and I send our son to LMS.

Primarily, my wife liked the idea of a Montessori school back when it opened. And I was impressed with how quiet and on-task the kids were the one time I visited. That was pretty much it, and we enrolled him at 3 in pre-K, if I remember right.

Today, I’m a pretty hands-off parent. I trust the teachers to do their jobs. I watch and interact with my child at home. And if there’s an issue, we try to do practical things to resolve it. Over the years, I have tried not to do homework with my kids unless they absolutely got stuck on something. I want my kids to figure things out themselves. I want them independent and intellectually self-reliant. There have been times when we’ve had to violate that ideal for the sake of checking a box and getting through the day — both at LMS and with our other kids’ schools. The homework dance, in my humble opinion, tends to dull independence for not much gain. So I thoroughly approve of the recent LMS decision to essentially get rid of homework. Another reason for attending.

Additionally, over the years, I have come to enjoy the slightly odd and creative ethic that has developed at LMS. I often call it a “hippie school” as a mild-mannered joke. But I think there is a sense of kindness that pervades the place, related both to its tininess and what it values. I like that.

However, the world is not fundamentally kind. In many ways, kindness is a luxury that we’re able to buy with our structure. Toughness and awareness of the lives of the wider world are virtues that need to be developed along with kindness. So I’m not really sure what future decisions we’ll make about schooling. They won’t be dictated by some blinkered notion of test achievement, though.

Finally, LMS has become almost a neighborhood school for us. Many of our neighbors and neighborhood acquaintances attend. Our son goes to school with children whose experiences and cadences are very familiar to him, as are the experiences and cadences of their parents to us. Never underestimate the power of feeling comfortable, of ethnic and cultural affinity, in shaping the choices we all make. That applies to LMS as surely as Alturas.

So there are my reasons. And now, in the spirit of that very brave and principled parent, here are a few questions for us relating to how we do business as a wealthy school with a self-selected enrollment.

It is a bit uncomfortable for me to ask them. I think, hopefully, a public discussion will push us all a bit past comfort. And I’ve exposed every other school I’ve written about to public scrutiny. So it’s time to do that with my own, just like that other parent did. So here we go.

1) What is our waiting list? Is it really 600 kids for a school of 89? If so, what do we think about that? Are those 600 people waiting for the Montessori methods, our “Peace Pole” culture, our FCAT scores, or our wealthy demographics? That, of course, is a question without a definitive answer. But I think it’s a question we should never stop asking ourselves.

2) More importantly, it’s my understanding that if you pay for Montessori pre-school, which starts at age 3, you get priority into the K-6 public school. What do we think about that? Isn’t that guaranteed to privilege wealthier parents? Is there anything we can do about it? Is it moral? Should you kick my child out to make room for someone who is needier?

3) It is my understanding that LMS has no intention of growing. Let me just say that I fully support that. I think the evidence shows the growth model that McKeel follows is based almost entirely on bashing traditional schools to create marketing momentum. Under no circumstances would I support that kind of growth. But I don’t think that’s ever been a priority for us, which is good.

Maybe we could encourage the Polk School District to create a larger, district-level Montessori school. We have special arts schools and STEM schools. Why couldn’t we have a Montessori school? Should we draft a letter to the School District to that effect?

4) Do we dump kids? Do we urge kids to leave? What’s our turnover?

5) Why do we pay any attention to FCAT at all? Can we stop? I’m confident that our demographics, coupled with the teaching methods our kids get, will always produce scores that will compare favorably to traditional schools who lack our structural advantages. I submit that’s all the FCAT is designed to do, anyway. It’s a class marker designed to give cover to Kelli Stargel so she grade other parents and funnel more resources to McKeel.

I’d like to ignore that silly test. If my son never again works on an FCAT prep worksheet, it will be too soon.

And frankly, I never looked at LMS’s FCAT scores before I started to use them as a weapon. It says something that I see no other value in those scores than weaponry. This is one parent who fully supports dumping the entire FCAT prep apparatus and doesn’t care if the scores drop in response. In fact, it would make a pretty interesting experiment, don’t you think?

In conclusion, for me, all of this started when I read a bit of traditional school and teacher bashing — otherwise known as marketing — from McKeel’s Harold Maready.

If you’ll remember, he had this to say:

“In review of all the data, magnet, choice and charter schools are making a difference, which should be studied and implemented in other schools. Charter schools are not the total answer but are part of the solution.”

Maready said there needs to be drastic changes made in education, just as the MSNBC program pointed out.

“Analysis of the data would allow for an open forum to work together in solving the education issues in Polk County,” he said. “If we do not recognize there is a problem, then there cannot be a solution.”

Maready also said, in a different story about the same time: “We’ve got to be doing something right. If you look at the traditional public schools, that’s not us. We like to do things differently.”

Funny that Maready’s been a little quieter these days. Haven’t heard much from Larry Ross either. Wonder why that is? Anyway, that bit of triumphalism — coupled with McKeel’s kid-dumping — radically engaged my thinking about the wealthy “magnet, choice, and charter schools.” Never dare someone to start a public forum if you’re unprepared to participate, McKeel folks.

In providing the public forum that McKeel asked for, I have, at times, used LMS’ FCAT scores as a bludgeon. They have been very effective in the public argument that Polk’s wealthier schools generally underachieve and its poorer schools often overachieve on the bogus measure of FCAT score. I don’t apologize for that. But I do recognize the inherent unpleasantness of pitting the wealthy “magnet, choice, and charter schools” against each other. It’s ugly and unkind. Not Montessori, even.

And, at times, I’ve said unkind things, by implication, about the people who work in magnet, choice, and charter schools. The worst offense was my snide little joke a while back about challenging certainly faculty to a trivia game.

However, I also think we who are part of the wealthy “magnet, choice, and charter” community need to understand that we engage far more often in the ugliness and unkindness of denigrating the teachers and students and parents who are not part of the magnet, choice, and charter community. In many cases, we do it accidentally. But in many other cases, we do it with malign and clear intention. That’s worse than unpleasant. It’s dishonest bullying used in the service of marketing. That’s what too many charter schools, particularly, are doing. All you have to do is listen to hear it.

At least at first glance, I am a very mediocre LMS parent. I am not nearly as involved as many others. I have never attended a board meeting. I forgot to send Valentine’s Day cards with my son to school on Valentine’s Day. Who does that? I fail in ways large and small every day. It’s because of that recognition that I am very slow on the trigger to slag off on parents whose lives are fundamentally more challenging than my own, whose schools may not throw off the FCAT numbers that mine do.

That’s because everything involving schools, involving the evaluation of children, is personal. If any of us think we have an opinion about that subject, we need to be prepared to apply it to ourselves.


Creative Commons License image credit: William Arthur

20 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Lakeland Montessori Schoolhouse — And Everybody Else

  1. Here that. It is me clapping for you. My sons attend a charter and a magnet school. I don’t feel good about abandoning my neighborhood schools and I don’t feel good about the lack of diversity, specifically socio-economic diversity, at either place. I don’t want to just advocate for my kids. I want to fight for all kids. I am excited for the chance to be truthful, and truthfully, I worry that these school lotteries are segregating our communities. Nobody will win…not even the ones with the high FCATs.

    • Thanks. And I think your point about the “ones w/ high FCAT scores” is a good one because it’s actually built on a false premise. We don’t know that they even have high FCAT scores. We just know they are higher than others. There is no effort by the state whatsoever to actually establish what a “high FCAT score” is. They set a middling standard and then judge all schools by the percentage that reach that middling standard. That’s why I keep harping on the fact that there was a bigger gap in test score in 2010 between LMS and one of the McKeel schools than between that McKeel school and the lowest-performing school. Think about that. Did that McKeel have a high score? Did we even? It’s all relative, designed to pit school against school, which is why it’s class marker not an assessment.

  2. While this may get my daughter’s application for kindergarten at LMS thrown out… I’ll tell you what I think about the situation as an outsider, who wants to be an insider.

    I want my daughter to go to LMS because I value the Montessori model of learning. That is it. If she can’t get into LMS, we’ll likely homeschool her. 
    However, I have always been struck by the “preschool rule” you took advantage of. It seems to fundamentally fly in the face of what Maria Montessori was attempting when she established this approach to education. She took the poorest, least prepared students and changed their lives. 

    I don’t begrudge those who can afford it the opportunity to buy their way into the charter school. That doesn’t mean that I don’t feel it is slightly unfair and disingenuous. Or that I wouldn’t have taken advantage of it had there been an extra $6,000 laying around our house.I’d sincerely like to see the Montessori model extended to children all over our district, particularly to the students who are most similar to Maria’s first students. Head Start program leaders could learn a lot by reading her books.

    It would seem to me that the people who already know how to start and run a Montessori school would be in the best position to do it again and open the opportunity to other families.

    As an aside… I never thought to notice this before, but after reading this post and what you wrote about “doctor’s wives” getting jobs as secretaries to help their kids get into a “better” school, I looked at the board member’s bios. I see it includes a lawyer, a doctor, two bankers, and educator. All of them, of course, have, or had, children that attended LMS. I mention that to ask, are board members selected from parents of children who already attend, or were these parents already on the board when their children were accepted to the school?I don’t have any problem with it either way, but since you brought up something similar with the other schools in the county, I thought you might want to address it with LMS.

    • All good points. Which is why I’ve raised this in the first place. And I can say, having talked to Josie in the last day or two, that there’s a lot of interest from LMS in urging the district to operate its own larger Mont. school. I think we should all push that. But I do not think there are resources — in terms of time or institutional interest — for LMS to replicate itself.

      I think the key mitigating factor for LMS in this is that I doubt anyone ever thought there would be a 600-person waiting list. I know that when my family took advantage of the preschool rule, we didn’t even realize we were taking advantage of it. It didn’t matter that it privileged wealthy parents, I think, because there wasn’t massive demand to get into it. I wasn’t like applying to a college, it was like signing up for preschool that would extend into real school. Now people may correct me on that. That’s just my feeling and memory. I think this is a situation that just sort of happened. I think that relates to the fact that LMS is tiny and wants to stay tiny, the same way that many other microcharters are tiny. We don’t have marketing plan, as far as I know.

      As far as what we could do about the pre-school rule, Josie and I are going to talk more formally next week. And hopefully I’ll be able to better understand the reasoning and possibilities afterward. But I agree with you, Mont. ed. should not just be for the professional creative class.

      And concerning my doctors’s wives snark, the key piece there is allowing people to jump the waiting list if they take a part-time job at the school. That obviously benefits stay-at-home parents or parents who have the financial capability and flexibility to do that. If we have a similar gaming, I will criticize. I don’t think we do, but…

      I have no problem with doctors and lawyers and whatever else if they don’t get de facto preferential treatment.

      • Thanks for your response. I suspect you are right that the preschool rule had unintended consequences of shutting out less-wealthy families. I can’t imagine anyone who loves montessori would set out to start a school for the wealthy. It would make no sense. But, it is still an unintended consequence that ought to at least be acknowledged (which is seems Josie and you have done). After thinking hard about it though, apparently I am not quite creative enough to come up with a better solution, because a montessori school ought to have a preschool program, that’s how it is designed to work best. But without county funding, the parents have to fund it. And if I paid for a year of montessori and then had to go to the bottom of the pile for random admission the next year, I’d think that was unfair as well.

        Finally, I have nothing against doctors and lawyers either… both have helped me out when I needed them. I was just curious how they came to be on the board, in light of their child’s attendance at the school.

  3. I attended the recent school board meeting about the changes to the wait lists for Polk magnet schools. I asked about charter schools and was told that they don’t follow the same rules. It is evident in their statistics. At one time, the numbers of free or reduced lunches were much lower at charter schools (as compared to magnet), as well as the number of minority students. I too have had a child on the wait list for Montessori for years. His number has actually gotten higher (now up to number 4 or 5). They give priority to people who can afford the pre-k first, and then to others who’s children have had Montessori background (not necessarily in Polk). I’m not sure if board member’s children get priority as well, but it would follow the trend. It always struck me a little odd that charter schools were part of the public school umbrella even though they could be selective about their students (as with McKeel “dumping” kids and LMS accepting paying pre-k students into kindergarten). I sense changes on the horizon. There have been a lot of questions raised about charter schools in the press in recent years (not necessarily local….throughout the nation). I’m glad you raised these questions about LMS, as many of us who have children on the wait list have been raising the same questions for years.

    • Agree completely. 

      I will say that I sort of understand the preference for previous Mont. experience because 1) the Mont. program begins formally at 3, I think. 2) it’s a specific and very different type of method that used in most other schools.

      I think there is a qualitative case to be made for that preference as ling we’re not out there trying to poach and undermine — through language and marketing — other schools.

  4. Thank you very much for your commentary. My children attend Chicago’s first Magnet Montessori school which also happens to be in my neighborhood of Bucktown. We have 1,900 + applications for the 36 spots that open each year. It breaks my heart that my next door neighbors that both went to Montessori as children cannot attend.

    To get to your point about parents, I think we need to consider the Hunan condition in general. 50% of happiness in life comes from having a clear and meaningful purpose in life. 40% comes from being free of anxiety or depression and only 10% of our happiness comes from external factors (money, education, marital status, poessessions etc.).

    We all need to feel like what we do each day makes a difference. Many parents have given up hope that they can change the very broken system.

    Tests and homework are fighting points within our family. I abhor the ISATs, yet our scores at Drummond have risen nearly 50%ile points since being converted from a traditional school into a Montessori and now parents line up because of the scores. You take the good with the bad and at least you get better…but certainly not what Maria Montessori had in mine.

    I am one of the lucky ones, I do give back, I volunteer constantly and sometimes can feel alone…then I realize I need to make people feel useful whether it is through their time or their dollars. Parents want the best for their children, for me making their child feel useful is the best thing we can do.

    Warmly,

    Mollie Stromberg
    Mostyn-Stromberg Montessori Foundation
    Mollie@MSMFound.com

    • thanks for your input. It’s nice to hear from another part of the country.

  5. Thank you for this information.  I’m interested to hear if you get any response to the questions you posed.  

  6. Then what is, Zachary? I’ll grant you that this might not have been my most focused piece, but I was grappling with a number of different thoughts. What I was trying to do in the McKeel comparison was drawing a distinction between a charter being an ally of egalitarian education  (which is what I hope we are at 89 kids) and a charter being an fairly-well declared enemy of egalitarian education at 2,800 kids and growing, whose marketing depends on convincing people their schools suck.

  7. Would you care to post your experience as an educator?  The number of times you have observed in a classroom setting?  The number of hours volunteering to help at traditional schools?  Your own education?  BS? MA?  EdD?  Obviously you have spent a countless number of hours in the school setting to be the educational genius to want others to believe.  My wife was asked recently to meet in a small forum with Education Commissioner Robinson – I have no idea why you were not chosen. 

  8. For everyone who reads this article – I have begged Mr. Townsend on several occasions to visit the traditional elementary school I work at or a magnet school in the area – BEGGED!!!  He does not show up, does not make ANY effort to actually see what goes on in ANY actual school.  It must be a joy to hold ALL of the answers to fix education but NEVER visit a school to help the process or to acquire ACTUAL knowledge.

    • Does Inwood Elementary count as a school? Because I wrote a very long and detailed account, based on site visits and observation of teaching, related to principal Sue Buckner, who worked there for a long time. I wrote about Mrs. Buckner, who died recently, in a post lined to here: 

      http://www.lakelandlocal.com/2011/05/death-of-a-giant-rip-sue-buckner/

      Unfortunately, the rather giant article I wrote about the details of Inwood’s experience is locked behind Tampa Tribune pay wall archives. But there is a link for getting to it contained within the post I’ve cited above. 

      As I’ve said many times, my kids have attended collectively virtually every type of school. So I have certainly visited magnet schools and charter schools and traditional schools on many occasions. If you would like me to itemize them all, with descriptions and observations, it might get a little boring. But I suppose I can do that. Or maybe you can just consider that schools with which you have affiliation are not the only schools that exist.

      • I would like you to itemize them, with descriptions and observations – regardless of how boring, we all stand to gain from reading your extensive educational expertise. 

      • I would like you to itemize them, with descriptions and observations – regardless of how boring, we all stand to gain from reading your extensive educational expertise. 

        • Well, let’s see:

          I was The Ledger’s education editor from 2003-2006. I oversaw coverage of the Lake Wales Charter District’s first years – including some rather critical coverage realted ti tracher firings at LWHS. I did not actually drive the 40 miles to the schools. So you got me there. My reporters did the site trips. l edited and reviewed and did phone interviews.

          In that editor capacity, I had responsibility for every single “In the Schools” feature. They ran on Tuesdays. So I probably got an on-the-ground look into 80 schools in three years through those stories.

          I volunteered a lot at Rochelle, but did not have an official capacity. I liked that my daughter got to learn the violin. I did not find the academics of that magnet school particularly impressive. I thought it coasted on its enrollment a bit; but it was worth it for the everyday musical education.

          I was very impressed with the 8th grade teachers at Crystal Lake Middle, where my older son went, circa 2004-2005. They were all good in a school with very poor administration. A youngish science teacher was particularly effective with my son. I would have to say that collection of teachers was the best I’ve personally come in contact with.

          My wife was PTA president at Lime Street back before it became Phillip O’Brien. We actually knew and liked very much the real Phillip O’Brien, who was prinicpal for many years. My daughter’s second grade teacher, Mr. Stanley, was the best elementary I ever saw. Mr. O’Brien worked really hard to get male teachers in every grade so there would be a mix. I thought that was very smart. Used Title I money pretty effectively to build parental community with a lot of events. 

          I remember at four in-depth interviews with Sue Buckner at Inwood at various times in my Ledger and Trib career. As I’ve already mentioned, I wrote a giant story about what happened at Inwood after she left. My observations are all there. Go find them with the link I gave, if you care.

          I spent hours at Lakeland High writing and putting together the Hazel Haley special section. That was before my kids went there, I think, and regularly went after that. It’s a big warehouse to some extent. Not really LHS’ fault: it’s just too big. I thought my kids got solid educations commensurate with effort they put in. My daughter’s English senior English teacher was outstanding.

          But of course my daughter technically went to Harrison for drama. Loved her drama teachers. I was on the parent board for two years. And I very loudly sent an email message to the parent group denouncing the charter effort, which is an effort to enhance exclusivity and capture the value of a multi-million expansion that all the taxpayers of Polk County paid for.

          And honestly, that’s just what I can remember. You’re not going to read any of this anyway. I await your next petulant response.

  9. Actually, let me refine a bit. I think we should handle the easy things first. 

    1) Let’s formally petition/write a letter/etc. the district to create a Mont. school with its next choice/magnet school action. We could get wider attention with that and help make something happen.

    2) Let’s discuss and/or drop FCAT emphasis.

    These are two things that we can do pretty quickly. 

    The enrollment/admissions stuff is much harder and more complex. We shouldn’t sugarcoat that. Maybe we just piggyback off the magnet reforms, but I don’t know enough about the quality of those reforms. There are massive real world systems and realities built into: “we consider race and socio-economics first so we can ensure a diverse and integrated school.” 

    Maybe the simplest thing would be to guarantee entry to anyone picked off the waiting list for pre-K, regardless of ability to pay. But then, how would we determine ability to pay and how would we finance that? What are the enforcement mechanisms? Those are all incredibly thorny issues. So I’d hate to see us not do some easier things because we’re tangled in the weeds of enrollment.

  10. Actually, let me refine a bit. I think we should handle the easy things first. 

    1) Let’s formally petition/write a letter/etc. the district to create a Mont. school with its next choice/magnet school action. We could get wider attention with that and help make something happen.

    2) Let’s discuss and/or drop FCAT emphasis.

    These are two things that we can do pretty quickly. 

    The enrollment/admissions stuff is much harder and more complex. We shouldn’t sugarcoat that. Maybe we just piggyback off the magnet reforms, but I don’t know enough about the quality of those reforms. There are massive real world systems and realities built into: “we consider race and socio-economics first so we can ensure a diverse and integrated school.” 

    Maybe the simplest thing would be to guarantee entry to anyone picked off the waiting list for pre-K, regardless of ability to pay. But then, how would we determine ability to pay and how would we finance that? What are the enforcement mechanisms? Those are all incredibly thorny issues. So I’d hate to see us not do some easier things because we’re tangled in the weeds of enrollment.

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