Clark Montessori students work with a teacher. (Bob Ohr/Courtesy Clark Montessori)
More than a hundred years ago Maria Montessori began to attract attention for her approach to educating children that aimed to build off the natural curiosity and impulse to learn innate in humans. Today thousands of Montessori schools exist around the world, and the philosophy has remained a darling of progressive educators. But Montessori’s direct work and many of her writings pertain to educating young children up through elementary school, so it is harder to find high schools, especially public ones, that have adopted the model.
The first public Montessori high school in the U.S. started over 20 years ago out of the work of a group of middle school students who had been educated in the Montessori system their whole lives and wanted a high school option. In their eighth-grade year every student worked on a "Change Project." This small group of students researched Montessori’s writings on education, focusing on what she said about adolescents, and designed the broad strokes for what a high school could look like. They drew heavily on their own experiences as Montessori students as well. They presented their plan before the Cincinnati Board of Education and inspired the adults on the board and in the room. Shortly thereafter, Clark Montessori High School was born.
“I remember being nervous going into the board meeting,” said Anna Meloy, one of the students who worked on the project. "I remember being really hopeful that they would listen to us.”
Montessori schools have the reputation of being elitist, mostly white and often private, but Cincinnati has a history of diverse, public Montessori elementary schools that came out of a desegregation lawsuit filed in 1974. That history was a boon to Clark as it got started because it helped ensure a racially and socioeconomically diverse student body from the beginning. Current Clark Principal Dean Blase says the demographics mirror those of the city with about 50 percent African-American students and 50 percent white students.
There are many progressive high schools incorporating elements of what might be considered Montessori education. Ideas like fostering a culture of respect, strong communication between teachers and students, building on individual students’ interests, providing real-world opportunities to make a difference in the world, and using school as a training ground for good citizenship show up in many different schools in various forms.
“What shifts and makes it become more of a Montessori program at that level is that the Montessori schools are going to have a real focus on adolescent development,” said Marta Donahoe, a founding teacher at Clark Montessori High School and now a coach for teachers from around the world who want to learn how to be Montessori secondary teachers.
The focus on adolescent development means teachers are always thinking about how to build curriculum that will help students take their place in the world. They recognize that high school is a training ground for the rest of society and so they focus on “valorization of the personality” -- a Montessori phrase for character development -- and giving many opportunities for students to engage their hands, hearts and bodies in authentic work.
“It has to be real,” Donahoe stressed. “It can’t be fake things or just chores. It needs to be real work, like real businesses or real farm work or real service work.” She also noted that adolescents are often cynical about the world, so educators aim to inspire them and make them feel hopeful about the impact they can have.
“The teachers develop this curriculum that has developmental themes and they always focus on the nobility of work and the progression of the human spirit,” Donahoe said. The school is well known for its many purposeful structures to develop community and collaboration, including a pair of two-week long intercessions, one in the fall semester and one in the spring semester, when students often leave campus and go on trips that could include community service or even more costly endeavors, like studying marine biology in the Bahamas. In keeping with the work ethic values of Montessori, students are expected to come up with half the money for these trips, but they start early (sometimes two years before) and raise the money together.
Principal Dean Blase said fundraising has been a great way for families to get to know one another and learn from one another. “We’ve learned a lot from our African-American families about ways to pass the plate in respectful, fun ways,” she said.
Structurally, Clark is on a block schedule and teachers work in teams to try and make the learning as interdisciplinary and relevant as possible. The learning themes help provide the bridge between subjects and encourage students to study a cluster of ideas deeply. Most projects at Clark require collaboration between students, and educators see it as their job to help students figure out who they are going to be in the world.
“I felt really prepared for college and had those real-life experiences,” said Anna Meloy. “I had the opportunity to learn and grow with my peers. I felt like I understood myself and had direction for what I wanted to do with my life.”
Donahoe has worked with many teachers in this model and says the key factors for success are self-confidence in the classroom, being drawn to the age group, a personality that thrives on adolescent energy, and a true passion for the subject being taught.
“[Students] are so relational between 12 and 18,” Donahoe said. “That’s really important. You can’t resist a teacher who loves what they’re teaching.” When a teacher clearly wants to bring out the best in a young person, it is hard for that young person to resist the attention.
“I really believe we focus on the whole child through our academics,” Donahoe said. “It’s the vehicle through which we create this opportunity for being better people. We don’t need to shy away from that.” Montessori is known for the structures that govern the classroom, but Donahoe said those structures help provide consistency so that within them teachers and students feel empowered to showcase their individual talents.
“The reason it works is we have certain structures, and then say how can you show up within the structure to be an amazing person,” Donahoe said.
CHALLENGES TO MONTESSORI HIGH SCHOOLS
The Montessori philosophy has been around for a long time and yet there are very few high schools that claim the model, especially public ones. There is no official database of Montessori high schools, but the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector (NCMPS) estimates that there are about 20 public Montessori high schools.
“During her lifetime, Dr. Montessori worked out in great detail pedagogy and curriculum up through sixth grade," said David Ayer, Communications Director for NCMPS. Montessori didn't write very much about adolescents so there is less of a clear path to follow. "There's not a consensus on what a Montessori middle school or high school is," he said.
Other challenges to the model are more logistical: High schools need to hire specialty teachers, which costs more money and requires a large student body to make it economically feasible. Larger school and class sizes in turn make it difficult to carry out the Montessori values. And there's the question of whether a large high school with 1,500 to 2,000 students is the right kind of community for adolescents to best learn.
The typical schedule of many high schools is also a basic barrier. It’s hard to dive deeply and think critically when each class is 40 minutes long. Montessori classrooms also don’t track students into advanced courses, something many high schools see as a priority for getting students into college. “It’s complicated because we’re trying to make sure the students are learning how to care about each other, be kind to one another, and dive into the academic work at the same time,” Donahoe said.
Another big challenge to Montessori high school as a widespread model is the fact that it works best as an extension of Montessori education in the earlier grades. Kids who have grown up in caring relationships with teachers and one another already know what’s expected of them and have had a lot of coaching around how to make decisions about learning. Donahoe said she’s seen the challenges teachers face when there are too many kids without this foundation: “They have trouble with some of the freedom to make decisions and ways of getting along with others,” she said. And that results in a chaotic classroom.
Donahoe recommends at least 75 percent of the student body come from Montessori elementary and middle schools for the best results. That way there’s an existing culture and peer-led expectation setting already in existence that non-Montessori kids can fit into. Donahoe said she used to interview all applicants to Clark, looking not for the best GPA or test scores, but for a real desire to be in a different kind of educational setting.
“Even if they’re difficult, it’s really that desire to be in a particular environment that can make a big difference,” she said.
The other big challenge comes from the district level. Donahoe has seen too many well-intentioned educators and programs fall apart if the leadership isn't strong and pressures coming down from above derail an exciting idea. Her recommendation to people looking to start something new is to do it without asking permission about every specific decision. Once a popular, exciting school is in place, few district officials will want to dismantle it.
That’s been true for Clark, which is now a very desirable school to attend because it has a reputation as a “good school.” But that hasn’t stopped Clark educators from continually trying to improve on what they’re doing. Most recently, Blase has spearheaded an effort to bring restorative justice practices to school discipline. She’s concerned that Montessori values are stopping at the office door, a poor example for students.
Over the summer she and her staff went on retreat, where they’ve been reading critical race theory, discussing their own implicit biases and trying to come to consensus as a staff about how to live out the Montessori values they want to instill in kids in all parts of their teaching practice.
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