“If you were going to start over with a sheet of paper and no context, what would you think your children should do all day?” asks Wildflower Schools CEO Matt Kramer. “You’d want an environment that would prepare them to be the best version of themselves. And you’d love for teachers to be as fully engaged in this as parents were, like owners of their schools rather than employees.”
Wildflower is a Montessori school. Although the Montessori approach has been around for decades in preschool and private schools, it is gaining ground as an umbrella for innovative approaches for individualized public education.
Designed to grow independent learners through self-directed, hands-on work, Montessori schools address the whole child, building autonomy and even courtesy along with academic competence. Research on Montessori’s impact has been promising: A recent South Carolina study saw more growth in math, social studies, and general creativity among Montessori students than among their peers.
That’s why the Walton Family Foundation is supporting Wildflower and other Montessori models as part of its efforts to foster diverse educational approaches that meet the needs of every child.
Founded in 2014 as a national network of tiny, one-room schools, Wildflower Schools looks very different from traditional or even Montessori schools. Its multi-grade classrooms sit in regular shopfronts, simultaneously saving money on facilities, providing students with an authentic connection to the surrounding community and allowing teachers to run one- or two-classroom schools with minimal overhead.
Wildflower now has 20 schools across Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Indiana, Kentucky and Puerto Rico as well as a support and coaching network. This network is led by Matt, a Teach for America veteran who grew up in Montessori schools and sends his own children to one.
The Wildflower schools in Puerto Rico are part of the public district system. While the rest are private schools, they are a viable option for low-income parents both in preschool, where most states offer a variety of early childcare assistance programs, and in later grades in states that offer vouchers for private schools. In other places, Wildflower solicits community development grants or philanthropic support to ensure it can serve a diverse student body.
For example, medical assistant Elizabeth Torres uses early childhood vouchers to send her three small children to Marigold Montessori, a Wildflower school in working-class Haverhill, Massachusetts.
As a working parent and former teacher, Elizabeth’s other option for childcare in her neighborhood was an in-home daycare, but she knew she wanted more for her children. Her son is learning letters and numbers, while her twin daughters are not only playing with letter sounds but also asking to wash dishes and bake at home.
In Washington D.C., Lee Montessori opened in 2014 to bring the highly personalized Montessori approach to children in low-income communities. Parents have been responsive to the school’s focus on both knowledge and interpersonal skills.
Founder Chris Pencikowski says interim assessments have shown strong academic growth across demographic groups. The school is also piloting the Minnesota Executive Function Scale, an assessment of soft skills like flexible thinking and self-control.
These skills build a love of learning that Montessori parents see translating into greater confidence and stronger learning over time. At Lee Montessori, first-grade student Denim Cain has flourished, according to her mother Kwiecia. As a high school English teacher, Kwiecia had drilled her daughter on letters and sight words before she began kindergarten last year.
Kwiecia was initially dubious when Denim seemed to lose those words, even as she picked up new skills like ironing, sewing and cleaning up. But by the end of the year, Kwiecia noticed that Denim’s reading skills had returned — along with a confidence built from choosing her own work.
“Sight words are short-term, but Montessori builds a longer-term memory and understanding of why things are the way they are,” says Kwiecia, who commutes 45 minutes across the city to get Denim to school. “She learned how to read and put letters together not because we were standing over her, but because she spent time with them by choice. That nurtures a real love of learning.”