A Montessori “micro-school” model too small and too autonomous for traditional accountability measures wants to launch several charter schools in Indianapolis.
The Mind Trust granted $250,000 this week to Wildflower Schools to develop its model, mostly used across the country in private schools, to fit a public charter school design.
It could take about three years before Wildflower opens schools in Indianapolis, as it sorts through critical challenges to becoming a charter school, said Brandon Brown, the Mind Trust’s senior vice president of education.
Many of Wildflower’s principles don’t easily match up with what state laws expect from charter schools. Its micro-schools intentionally limit an entire school to the size of a typical single classroom, and teachers — not principals or school boards — lead the schools.
That’s exactly why the Mind Trust, an education nonprofit and charter school incubator, wanted to bring Wildflower to Indianapolis, Brown said. He hopes it could break new ground in Indiana’s charter sector and introduce a new idea about what public schools could look like.
“It’s really hard to be incredibly creative and incredibly innovative when you are held accountable to kind of one-size-fits-all accountability model,” Brown said.
Wildflower micro-schools enroll only 20 to 30 students led by two teacher-leaders, and they often open in storefronts so they can feel embedded in communities. Each of the network’s 14 schools operate separately, without the typical administrative structure of most schools or districts.
Wildflower is testing how to pair a Montessori approach with technology to help teachers observe and track students’ behavior, through strategies such as embedding sensors into materials and students’ shoes.
“The idea of Wildflower is in many ways parallel to the idea of charters where the charters were trying to break down the construct of hierarchical districts,” said the Wildflower Foundation CEO Matt Kramer, who formerly co-led Teach for America.
Like the idea of charter schools, Kramer added, the Wildflower model aims to be “accountable to results” and “less accountable to process.”
Kramer said he was attracted to Indianapolis because the city and its largest public school district are supportive of charter schools. He expects to open three to four Wildflower schools here in 2020 at the earliest, but locations and school leaders have not yet been identified.
With the Mind Trust funding, Wildflower will spend the next few years working through key questions before going through the charter school application process with a local or state authorizer.
Those challenges, Kramer said, include: How can the micro-schools show accountability if they’re too small to receive an A-F grade or have test scores publicly reported?
How can teacher-leaders maintain “radical autonomy,” as Kramer puts it, while being overseen by a charter school board?
Where can the schools open in Indianapolis to be “diverse by design,” as Brown said, and maintain the socioeconomic mix of students that they seek to serve?
Would they partner with Indianapolis Public Schools as possible innovation schools, where they can leverage district services while maintaining control of their schools?
Kramer said underlying those challenges are questions about school choice in general that he thinks haven’t yet been answered: “How much choice do we really want to give to parents? Do we think, collectively, as we think about schools— do we think it is enough to have informed parents choose what they want to do, or is that not enough?”
Wildflower is opening another charter school in Minneapolis, Kramer said. At other locations, the micro-schools look for other public funding mechanisms, such as vouchers, so that families across income levels can afford to attend.
In Indiana, Wildflower is starting a private school in Fort Wayne, which Kramer said will likely seek to accept vouchers.
When asked about academic results at Wildflower Schools, Kramer said it was too soon to tell. The first Wildflower school opened in Massachusetts in 2014, and he said none of the schools had been evaluated yet. He cited instead research on the successes of the Montessori method.
Correction: February 16, 2018: This story has been corrected to clarify Wildflower’s use of technology in schools.