At the Philadelphia Montessori Charter School, children as young as three can choose what they want to do for the day.
They can play with colorful counting beads. They can read a book – or make one. They can match letters in the alphabet box with little objects that start with the letter: A is for astronaut. They can draw a map.
It is the picture of high-quality early education, with active and engaged children exploring in a literacy-rich environment and learning academic and social skills with an expert teacher.
Even so, this charter school – the only one founded in Philadelphia on the belief that good preschool is essential, especially for students who grow up in poverty – may not survive. In April the School Reform Commission granted it a charter for just one more year, instead of the customary five, with a mandate to improve its test scores or be shut down.
The decision is based on the performance of older children in the K-6 school, many of whom never attended the early childhood program. In fact, the School District never evaluated the preschool because, for technical and funding reasons, it is not an official part of the charter.
PMC, which goes from pre-K through 6th grade, is based on the theories of famed Italian educator Maria Montessori. Well-established in many private schools and suburban communities, the unstructured, play-filled Montessori approach – where children follow their own interests rather than a set curriculum – is far less common in low-income neighborhoods.
But PMC founder Kathleen Dzura was convinced that Montessori could benefit these children as well. For two decades Dzura used the Montessori model with three- through six-year-olds at Longstreth Elementary, who then went to a 1st through 3rd grade taught by another Montessori teacher.
These students consistently scored 20 points above their peers on the District’s standardized tests. Dzura assumed that she could get the same results in a charter school.
Her assumption was wrong. “On some level, I guess I was naïve. It never occurred to me the same thing wouldn’t happen here.”
What happened at PMC is that scores on the PSSA have been consistently low. They improved in 2009 in math, but not English, and the school has never met its goals under No Child Left Behind.
Unlike at Longstreth, the population at PMC is transient. Some of the best older students who started as three-year-olds left for magnet schools such as Masterman or other charters where they could stay through 8th grade.
With the mandate to increase scores, PMC is now facing the dilemma of compromising the Montessori program in favor of test preparation.
So it was that one student was at a computer in his combined 4th-through-6th grade classroom shouting, “I got proficient!” after engaging in a very un-Montessori activity, using a computerized test-prep program called Study Island.
One issue is that the Montessori approach unfolds in three-year increments, with children allowed to proceed towards learning goals at their own pace. That conflicts with the more rigid, year-by-year structure of the standardized tests. The curriculum “simply unfold[s] in a different, nonlinear way,” Dzura said.
The teachers themselves are torn. “Tests are important; the children need the basics,” said PMC teacher Nathan Thomas. He, like others at the school, is most concerned that it is still able to focus on children’s holistic development, not just on academics, one of the hallmarks of Montessori and her early childhood theories.
Montessori is “the philosophy of honoring children as people and ….giving them every opportunity to become the people they are trying to become,” Thomas said. Reconciling the Montessori structure and test prep is a constant struggle. “I don’t quite know how to do that yet,” he said. “We are still learning.”
For instance, even in the earliest grades, there is a “peace table,” where students are able to go when they are agitated.
“Kids aren’t sent but they choose to come,” said programs director Caitlin Wood-Sklar. One student who arrived at the school with serious anger and discipline problems now sometimes leads peace meetings for other students, she said.
Another student from a difficult family situation who came to PMC in preschool was accepted at Masterman for 5th grade. “She’s one of those kids who could have gone either way,” Dzura said. “She was a very angry preschooler who embraced the Montessori journaling exercise and … she wrote through it. She’s a good example of what can happen.”
Associate Superintendent Benjamin Rayer said that the early childhood program is separate and not evaluated by the charter office because it is paid for through other funding streams, primarily Head Start and Pre-K Counts. While Rayer said he understands that the Montessori program has a different philosophy and educational approach, “the school still has to submit to assessment.”
The school’s struggles have led to a leadership upheaval. In an effort to improve its operations and increase student test scores, its board decided to bring in Foundations, Inc., which advises charter schools, as a consultant.
Dzura decided to resign in August rather than accept the new arrangement. But she still hopes her theory that this kind of holistic early childhood education can benefit even the most challenged and challenging students will be borne out.
“I want to see the school succeed,” she said.