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New Montessori graduates benefit from growing demand, but face barriers in public system

| By Nick Alexopulos
loyola university maryland montessori education
After earning a Master's in Montessori Education from Loyola, Alicia Allen moved to Portland, Ore., to teach at a public Montessori school.

It was her experience teaching English in China that inspired Alicia Allen to devote her career to an educational philosophy founded in Italy.

Allen, 25, is one of 99 students who completed Loyola University Maryland’s Master of Education program in Montessori Studies in July 2015. The Montessori approach couldn’t be farther removed from the rigidly-structured, memorization-based curriculum she was required to teach in her Yangzhou classroom.

“There was no room for creativity or freedom,” Allen said.

Now she and her fellow graduates are dispersing to Montessori schools all over the world to pursue teaching and future leadership roles at a time when Montessori demand continues to grow. Parents, students, and prospective teachers are drawn to Montessori’s unique approach that nurtures human development through learning activities focused on individual choice and discovery. Montessori schools design learning environments for students based on age group, and the multiple groups combined are the equivalent of preschool through high school.

Jack Rice, director of Loyola’s Center for Montessori Education, says Montessori is widely recognized as an alternative to traditional education methods that do not fully meet the needs of children.

“We’re starting to see a change in values. I think the pendulum is swinging away from high-stakes testing and the prescriptive curriculum used over the past 30 years that we realize is ineffective,” said Rice.

Nearly 5,000 of the 20,000 Montessori schools worldwide are in the United States, and most of those U.S. schools are private. Public U.S. Montessori schools have doubled in the last 15 years to roughly 450 programs that serve 112,000 students.

Waiting lists

Despite this clip, public school systems are unable to open enough new Montessori programs to keep up with demand—especially in large cities where many children lack access to high-quality education options. Baltimore City’s only public Montessori school has 1,200 students on its waiting list. In Washington, D.C., the Latin American Montessori Bilingual public charter school has 536 names on its waiting list, among the longest in the District but still short of the 716 students waiting for a spot in Capital Hill Montessori at Logan. The Montessori program at Broadwater Elementary School in Helena, Mont., recently received 106 applications for only 36 available seats. Public schools in Dallas, St. Paul (Minn.), and Juneau are also dealing with excess Montessori demand.

One major barrier inhibiting growth is a critical dearth of Montessori-trained teachers certified to teach in public schools. Teacher certification requirements and recognition of Montessori credentials vary widely from state to state. Some states, including Maryland, require a master’s degree from an accredited teacher education program (e.g., Loyola’s Master of Arts in Teaching) for a teacher to receive public school certification. Montessori teachers often follow a different educational path, attending an affiliated U.S. Montessori training center after college and generally remaining on the Montessori track if they choose to pursue graduate studies. The result: Montessori-certified teachers with a master’s degree in Montessori education who are eligible to teach in public Montessori schools in some states but not others.

This issue greeted Alicia Allen when she arrived back in her hometown of Portland, Ore., after completing the eight-week intensive summer session that caps Loyola’s Montessori graduate program. She was fortunate to land a position teaching fourth, fifth, and sixth graders at a public Montessori school in Portland—provided she enrolls in the additional courses needed for state certification and finishes within two years.

“There’s so much overlap between what I’ve already learned and a traditional teaching degree that it feels unnecessary,” said Allen. “I’m willing to shoulder the extra work because public Montessori schools are accessible to everyone. Knowing that all the students are going tuition free is really important to me.”

A calling to teach in public schools

Helping those who are less fortunate is a central tenant of the Montessori mission and directly linked to the proliferation of Montessori public schools and the drive of teachers passionate about the Montessori model.

“Our Montessori graduates get multiple job offers from all around the country and all around the world. But there’s a pull if you’re a teacher to go to your local community, to go to the public system in your local community, to go where kids need the help, and to offer that support,” said Rice.

Elizabeth Badillo Moorman, one of Allen’s classmates, fits this mold. For nine years before enrolling at Loyola she was an administrator at Bright Water Elementary, a Minneapolis, Minn., public Montessori school where 60 percent of students meet the criteria for free or reduced-price lunch.

“Montessori was founded on working with poor children and children with disabilities,” said Moorman. “This teaching is for every child.”

Moorman will be in the classroom in her tenth year at Bright Water thanks to a temporary certification through Teach For America, but she will need to complete a second master’s degree to be fully certified. The 48-year-old mother of four is halfway done; she took courses concurrently with her Montessori studies.

Despite the workload, her commitment is unwavering. 

“If we want to solve some of the fundamental challenges of society we have to start with children and education,” said Moorman.

Collaborate to address challenges

Jack Rice brings this message to the table in his discussions with the Maryland State Department of Education about meeting demand for public Montessori schools and the highly trained teachers needed to make them thrive.

“It’s not completely one-sided. State departments of education need to realize that they cannot start Montessori schools without Montessori teachers, and they have to make allowances to get Montessori teachers into those schools. I think in Montessori teacher training, we have to be more open to the kinds of experiences and the kinds of regulations that state departments of education are looking for,” said Rice.

Loyola’s Montessori program features extensive experiential and research elements combined with education courses built according to traditional teacher education pedagogy. The program partners with 10 U.S. Montessori training centers affiliated with the Association Montessori Internationale, the organization Maria Montessori founded in 1929. Loyola’s flagship partner is the Washington Montessori Institute in Columbia, Md.

New Montessori teachers leave Loyola prepared to foster the intellectual, physical, and emotional development of children. In many cases—like Allen and Moorman’s—the ideal destination is public schools, where students stand to benefit most. Rice and other leaders in the field are working to open as many doors as possible and spark innovation in the public sector. State agencies are engaged in similar conversations.

Rice says collaboration is the key to success.

“We need to meet in the middle because it’s the best thing for the kids.”

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