Melissa Droessler tries not to flinch when she tells people her dream of opening a charter school in Madison.
"Even the word 'charter' in Madison can be emotionally charged," she says.
But Droessler, director of Isthmus Montessori Academy, is steadfast in her belief that a century-old pedagogy created in the slums of Rome could help tackle Madison schools' thorniest problems.
Last month, the academy submitted a proposal to open Madison's first public Montessori school in September 2015. As Madison's fourth charter school, it would be tuition-free and open to anyone. It would also employ unionized Madison teachers, potentially avoiding a hurdle that tripped up proponents of the Madison Preparatory Academy charter school in 2011.
Perhaps most significant, Droessler and others believe the Montessori approach could raise low-income and minority student achievement.
"The achievement gap will probably be the biggest part of our pitch," she says "We feel it's time for this in Madison. There's no other motive."
Organizers want to submit a grant application to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction by April 15 that could net $150,000 for planning costs next year. The Madison school board is expected to vote whether to green-light the application at its March 31 meeting, though any binding decision to establish the school is at least 10 months away, according to district policy governing the creation of charter schools.
Board member James Howard has toured the academy at 255 N. Sherman Ave. on the city's near-northeast side. He says he's interested in the proposal but needs to know more before forming an opinion. Ditto for board president Ed Hughes.
"I'm interested in seeing if it's filling a need that somehow we're unable to fill otherwise," Hughes says.
If all goes according to plan, the academy would open with 131 students ranging from 4-year-old kindergarten to sixth grade. It would gradually expand to 304 students through grade 12 by 2019. A random lottery would determine who gets in if applications exceed available seats.
A lingering question is the school's location. The academy in 2012 leased a 5,000-square-foot space that's already too small, Droessler says. Organizers hope to relocate somewhere on the near east side, perhaps in an area with high concentrations of poverty, but haven't narrowed their options, yet.
"We would not want to be right next to a school that is clearly already answering the needs of family and children," Droessler says.
Funding is another big unknown. District policy approved by the school board last spring says new charter schools will receive the per-pupil rate for students in the state's open enrollment program, currently about $6,500, or less than half what the district spends on other students.
But Droessler anticipates the funding will work, in part because Montessori doesn't require small class sizes that can drive up costs.
Italian physician Maria Montessori developed her learning method around the turn of the 20th century. You can read all about her on Wikipedia, a little website run by former Montessori student Jimmy Wales.
Wales is part of what a 2011 Wall Street Journal article dubbed "The Montessori Mafia," a group of creative bigwigs like Amazon's Jeff Bezos and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin who have mentioned Montessori education as a force in their lives. (Fun fact: Sean "Diddy" Combs and Julia Child were also Montessori kids.)
Articles like that have revived interest in Montessori in recent years, but its central tenets date back to its founder. The educational method eschews traditional grading systems, tests and class periods. Instead, kids in multi-age classrooms engage in largely self-directed learning for long periods of uninterrupted time. Classes are known for their old-school materials, such as wooden blocks or strings of beads to teach counting. There's an emphasis on creating orderly environments where kids learn "grace and courtesy," a common Montessori phrase.
Critics have panned Montessori as too rigidly structured or, paradoxically, too lax and child-centric. Plus, the Montessori name isn't trademarked, so any schools can use it regardless of their training. The Academy, however, is affiliated with the Association Montessori International, one of two major accrediting bodies in the U.S.
Most of the United States' roughly 6,000 Montessori schools are private and charge tuition, often putting them out of reach for low-income families. But about 300 are public schools, and another 175 are tuition-free charter schools, says Dennis Schapiro, editor of the quarterly Public School Montessorian newspaper in Minneapolis. When he started the paper in 1988, he says there were about 50 public Montessori schools in the U.S.
Droessler and others point to studies suggesting the pedagogy -- when implemented correctly -- has helped reduce achievement gaps in Milwaukee, a Montessori hotspot with roughly 3,000 kids enrolled in eight of the state's 19 public Montessori schools. (All seven of Madison's Montessori schools are privately run.)
An oft-cited article among Montessori advocates appeared in the journal Science in 2006. Researchers compared roughly 60 low-income kids at ages 5 and 12 in a public Montessori school in Milwaukee to a similar pool of kids who applied but, after a random lottery, ended up at non-Montessori schools.
By the end of kindergarten, the 5-year-old Montessori students performed better on reading and math tests than their traditional-school counterparts and fared better in social development, researchers concluded. The 12-year-old test groups had similar reading and math scores, but Montessori children tended to write more creative and complex essays and respond more positively to hypothetical social dilemmas.
For more recent data, I turned to Phil Dosmann, a principal of two Montessori schools in Milwaukee before he retired last June. During a phone interview, he dug into his files to send me standardized testing data from 2008-09 and 2009-10, comparing Montessori students in Milwaukee to their traditional-school peers. It shows African Americans in Montessori outperformed their black peers in Milwaukee and statewide in all five subjects tested. Montessori kids from low-income homes also fared better than Milwaukee norms but trailed state averages in several categories.
Testing data goes only so far, of course. It doesn't account for the notion that kids from families who went to the trouble of enrolling their kids in a special school might be better off.
But Dosmann thinks Montessori's time has come, as education shifts from the "one size fits all" factory model for schools.
Montessori, he says, encourages kids to work at their own pace and inherently customizes education for each child.
"It's a national trend," Dosmann says of the rising interest.
A love of learning
On March 7, Droessler joined a dozen teachers and parents from Madison who toured three public Montessori schools in Milwaukee. One of the stops was Craig Montessori, a school for ages 3 through 8th grade where two-thirds of students are from low-income homes and three-quarters are black.
Before returning to Madison to open Isthmus Montessori Academy in 2011, Droessler taught three years at Craig. There, she says, kids who had to scrounge money for food were thriving in school. She credits Montessori.
"I wanted to bring that here," she says.
Along for the tour was Terry Grimm, a father of three children enrolled at Isthmus Montessori. Grimm and his family moved back to his native Madison in late 2012 after six years in St. Paul, where his oldest daughter attended one of the city's public Montessori schools. A product of Madison's public schools, Grimm is hesitant to keep his kids in Montessori if it remains a private, tuition-based program limited to families of means. But he likes how Montessori inspires a love of learning in his kids.
If the charter proposal flops, his family would face a tough call on whether to continue with Montessori.
"I hope we don't have to make that decision," he says.