This from an SF K Files reader:
I'm sure you've read the article on the front page of the Monday Chronicle about the Montesorri program at Cobb and alleged tension between the GE program and the Montesorri program. The article didn't seem to present both sides of the story and I wonder if families from Cobb might shed some light/truth on the complexity of the situation if you posted it as a topic. Schools that share a similar construct -- where the District has planted a magnet program such as language immersion in an historically underperforming school (particularly with a core African American population) -- and similar issues, might benefit from the sharing of information and best practices as well.
Montessori program at S.F. school stirs clash
Jill Tucker, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, December 7, 2009
It meant that poor, mostly African American students would have free and convenient access to what often is an expensive private program, out of reach and relatively unknown to inner-city children.
Instead, the effort has turned into a major headache for district administrators who now are embroiled in a bitter community battle over the educational fate of Cobb Elementary School.
At the heart of the fight is a district plan to phase out the school's traditional general education program - now serving predominantly African American students - to convert Cobb to all Montessori. While the program is offered to any family in the city, the intent of placing a Montessori program at Cobb was to better serve the neighborhood's African American families. Yet few parents from the community there seem to know much about the program or want it.
"Why should you uproot those kids?" said Deborah White, whose granddaughter attends Cobb's general education program. "That's a community school."
District officials say nothing has been decided and that the school board will vote on Cobb's fate in a public forum sometime in the near future.
A large waiting list
Currently, Cobb's Montessori program, which opened in 2005 for preschool children only, now takes up four of the school's 19 classrooms, offering instruction to 81 students up to the second grade. The program draws equal numbers of white, black, Asian and Latino students from across the city and maintains a large waiting list. This fall there were 133 applications for eight open seats in the pre-K program, said district spokeswoman Gentle Blythe. Priority is given to low-income families.
Now the district wants to expand the program through fifth grade, but that would mean there wouldn't be enough room to operate both Montessori and the traditional elementary school on the site.
One would have to go - with the general education program the most likely candidate. District officials say moving the Montessori program to another school would be expensive and would leave Cobb with just 150 students - too few to be financially viable.
Supporters of the Montessori expansion say it would make sense to send Cobb's general education students to nearby Rosa Parks or John Muir Elementary schools, but opponents, who include Cobb's parents and teachers, want the general education students to stay where they are. They're willing to fight for Cobb.
Dozens of supporters for Cobb's traditional program appeared before the school board recently to argue their case.
Cobb has served working-poor families in the Western Addition for generations. Moving to a more distant school would be a tremendous hardship for many, said Cobb general education teacher Yvette Fagan.
"Nobody came and talked to the families about Montessori," she said. "If they wanted the parents to have a choice, did they ask them if they wanted the choice? Are these parents supposed to feel invested?"
Poor marketing job
School board member Rachel Norton said the district opened the Montessori program at least in part to address the relatively low academic performances of African American children across the city, but it appears that school officials haven't done the best job marketing the program to the Western Addition families they had particularly hoped to serve.
Many neighborhood parents said they thought the program wasn't available to them. Some believed it was a private institution or that they would have to pay tuition for their children to attend.
Regardless, most parents remain committed to Cobb.
In the school's traditional classrooms, the teachers teach and give homework and tests. In Montessori classrooms, children teach themselves and each other. There are no tests or take-home worksheets; the teacher is a guide who monitors their progress with very specific visual and tactile tools.
Some studies have shown Montessori students, including low-income and minority children, perform better academically than those in traditional schools - although the research overall offers a mixed bag of results.
The Montessori program at Cobb is too new to determine how successful it is at raising its students' performance. The program's lone second-grader will be the only one eligible to take the state's standardized tests this year.
"(The Montessori method) actually has a really good track record with a group of kids we haven't done so well with as a district," Norton said. "We're not just doing the same thing we always did; we're putting programs in the targeted communities to help close that gap."
Cobb has long been the school of choice for Corinne Pope's daughter, Savannah, who will enter kindergarten next fall and would be interested in either program at the school.
Yet, at the district's enrollment fair she was told that because her daughter didn't attend Cobb's Montessori program as a preschooler, it would be nearly impossible to get into the program now.
If she enrolls her in the school's general education kindergarten, she wouldn't have any assurance that her daughter would be able to continue in that program through fifth grade.
"I don't know what we're going to do," Pope said. "I don't want to put her in the wrong school."
The school's Montessori implementer Emily Green acknowledged there will be few spaces for incoming kindergartners in the Montessori program and spots for upper grades would also be rare in the future.
In addition, it's not a good idea to transfer older elementary students into the Montessori method, Green said.
"I guess the moral of the story is this is hard," Norton said. "Change is hard."
How Montessori works
The first Montessori school was founded in 1907 by Maria Montessori in Italy, based on the fundamental idea that children teach themselves.
The method includes a "prepared environment" in which children can choose the activity they want to do.
Teachers don't give homework or tests.
Children work at their own pace and are placed in groups with a three-year age span, allowing them to learn from each other.
Teachers are considered "guides." They instruct students in how to use the specific Montessori learning tools and then let them learn and master the concepts.
"Everything is called work," said Carol Husbands, site manager for the Cobb Child Development Center, which includes the Montessori preschool program. "The teachers are trying not to interrupt their work. It's a children's house."
At San Francisco's Cobb Elementary School, each Montessori classroom contains a seemingly identical rack with strings of colored counting beads and a stackable tower of pink blocks. These are the same tactile tools one would find in a Montessori classroom in Hong Kong or Kentucky. The beads and blocks look like toys, but have order and purpose: to teach children individually and often subconsciously.
On a recent day, Cobb first-graders Lamariae and Eve, both 6, sat at a table huddled over a pile of words printed on cards.
"We're working together on singular and plural," Lamariae said.
Their teacher never interrupted or checked their work.
The girls put orange, key and kite under singular and then considered patio, cellos and donkey.
Nearby a student sat by himself and put cards with numbers in sequential order by ones, tens, hundreds and thousands.
While most Montessori schools are private, there are about 400 public programs in the United States, including those in charter schools.
San Francisco's Montessori program at Cobb Elementary School is one of about 30 in California.