In an effort to at least slow the dramatic enrollment declines that have long hobbled public schools in Detroit, officials are hoping to attract families to new Montessori programs opening next month.
“Detroit Public Schools right now is most concerned about ways to give people options,” Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather told a small group of parents who came out to an information session about the program this week. “How to do we give options, opportunities and be innovative about doing that?”
Montessori programs, which put kids in mixed-aged classrooms and encourage them to learn independently, have long been popular with affluent families. The approach is used in many private schools across the country.
But when Meriweather heard about public Montessori programs opening in other states, she said wanted to bring those programs to Detroit so that city kids could have access to the same kinds of programs available to children whose families have more resources.
“I went to a conference and there was an administrator there from another state who was talking about their public school Montessori program … and I said ‘Why can’t we do that?’” she recalled.
That was back when Meriweather was the district’s curriculum director.
Now she’s the interim superintendent and the district is preparing to open seven Montessori classrooms in three diverse city neighborhoods — in midtown at Spain Elementary School, in southwest Detroit at Maybury Elementary, and in the Grandmont-Rosedale neighborhood at Edison Elementary.
All three schools will have programs for 4- to 6-year-olds. Edison will also have a class for first and second graders.
“This is not an experiment,” Meriweather said. “[Montessori] is a method that’s been proven over many, many, many years to work.”
The district is now training its first group of Montessori teachers and says that both lead teachers and their assistants will have Montessori certifications. The plan is to enroll 17 to 20 students in each classroom, limiting the student-teacher ratio to 10 to 1 with a lead teacher and an assistant.
Many of the teachers going through the training are educators who sent their own children to Montessori schools “and felt so strongly about what it had done for their own kids that they felt our students deserved that opportunity,” Meriweather said.
Parents who attended the information session Tuesday evening in Maybury’s future Montessori classroom in Southwest Detroit expressed concerns about enrolling their children in a program with an uncertain future given that Meriweather’s tenure with the district could end when a new school board takes over in January.
But she said the program is funded for three years and argued that dedicated parents who believe in the program can keep it going no matter who is in charge. Eventually, she said, she’d like to see Detroit schools offer Montessori programs all the way up through high school.
“You’re tax-paying citizens,” she said. “If this is something you want for your kids and you see it as valuable, I don’t see how they could close it.”
Families who want apply for slots in one of the inaugural classes must submit applications by Aug. 22. Parents of children accepted will have to attend a mandatory parent orientation Aug. 28. Admissions will be determined through a lottery except for some of the slots for 4-year-olds, since some funding for the younger kids will come through a state program that requires schools to give priority to needy children.