Thursday, November 21, 2013

School Tour: SF Public Montessori

We almost skipped this tour because neither my husband nor I know much about Montessori; our vague notions about Montessori weren’t particularly positive; I’d heard that this school had burned through principals like kindling; and the location isn’t convenient for us.  But we wound up going and good thing, because I’m now on fire for this school and it has shot up to the top of my list.  I unfortunately don’t have time to craft a flowing narrative of my tour experience, so instead I’ll bullet my impressions and the facts that I gathered:
  • The school is in a gorgeous building, with lots of room for expansion.  The walls of the corridors were pretty naked, unlike the walls of other schools we’ve seen that are vibrant with the art and learning of students.  The naked walls gave me the initial impression of being in a cool and restrained environment.
  • Further on the restrained theme, classrooms are orderly.  Students are engaged in their own self-directed projects, alone or in groups.  What first intrigued me was the sight of 3 children of different races, all sprawled out on a comfy-looking rug, totally engrossed in their own learning experiences with different materials.   Teachers worked with small groups or individuals in quiet voices, and the overall impression was one of disciplined engagement.
  • The tour ended with an intellectual, rational discussion where everyone (principal, Montessori coach, and parents) took turns asking and answering thoughtful, well-articulated questions.  My husband didn’t love this part because he’s a passionate man and likes lots of vibrancy and action.  I didn’t love this part because I was raised working class and sometimes still am intimidated by upper-class social norms. 
  • There is no homework.  Instead, students prepare “reports” on subjects that interest them, and the intention is for the student who is interested in say – Egypt - to be able to learn history, architecture, geometry, and art while researching the report.  Despite lack of homework and differentiation between subjects, the school is still held to standards-based public school testing and I was assured that the teachers work to meet both the Montessori method goals as well as California state requirements.
  • I think the Montessori system works, if kids are brought in early enough.  That said, the tour leaders were open about the fact that transfer students often have difficulties adjusting to the structured self-direction that the Montessori method emphasizes. 
  • This school currently feeds into Marina Middle School.  The principal said that they want to expand to middle and even high school, but that it’s a matter of numbers.  Because there are mixed-aged classes, they just don’t have the demand to support a middle school, but I think the assumption was that this would change as enrollment increases.  One mom next to me said in passing that this was her main concern:  she hadn’t heard good things about Marina and didn’t want to wind up having her kid fed into that school.
  • The PTA raised around $60,000 last year, and the parent who led the tour was quick to point out that Montessori  is MUCH smaller (200-ish students) than many of the larger schools (500+ students) which raise $150,000 – $250,000.
  • I have no idea why they’ve had 4 principals in 4 years.  The current principal seems quite competent and I hope she plans to stay.  The school is only 8 years old so I’m hoping that the staff changes and other “difficulties” alluded to during the tour were merely the growing pains of a non-traditional school.
  • The “3 hour work period” sounded crazy when I first heard about it.  Basically, students spend the first 3 hours of the day engaged in sustained classroom activities.  This work period is then followed by recess and lunch, and then shorter periods of work in the afternoon.  That’s actually how both my husband and I work best, so after my initial shock that anyone would try to keep kids in a room for more than 45 minutes at a stretch, I realized that it made sense to me and that my daughter would probably thrive in that kind of focused, calm, disciplined environment.
  • The tour leader parent talked a bit about the aftercare program, but I wasn’t paying enough attention.  The bits that filtered through to my notes are that there is a Mandarin language & culture aftercare program, something else, and that there is definitely room in the program for all new families.
  • The principal and several of the teachers have backgrounds in the public school system, not  the Montessori system.  Those who are not Montessori-credentialed are working on their credentials this year, and there is a full-time Montessori coach (who I liked) on the tour.  I’m actually kind of excited about the mix of public and Montessori backgrounds, I feel like applying Montessori methods in an urban public school context is pretty innovative and will help ground this 20th century Italian ideology and pedagogy in the social and cultural reality of modern-day SF.
Bottom line:  This school seems like the perfect fit for our family.  I feel like the school environment would echo the home environment that my husband and I naturally try to foster:  a place of creativity, discipline, harmony, curiosity, respect, and self-direction.  If we get in here though, I’ll definitely be sending my kids to breakdancing or parkur or something else that lets them at least sometimes be intensely physical, messy, boundary-pushing, and free.

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