How Montessori Education is Helping Build Community in Englewood

by Rita Nolan, Executive Director, The Montessori School of Englewood
The Montessori School of Englewood

The Montessori School of Englewood, one of the first public schools in Chicago to offer a free Montessori education in an underserved community, is hoping to become a model for other ambitious education and community-building initiatives.

Montessori practice is based on the premise that children are deeply invested in their own development and are therefore capable of fulfilling their potential through self-directed efforts. The Montessori approach evolved at the same time that Chicago’s own rich tradition of modern education was taking hold in the city and across the nation in the early years of the 20th century. The core strategies of what is now known as progressive education were developed and passed on by education giants John Dewey, Francis W. Parker, Carlton Washburne, and social reformer Jane Addams – all of whom called Chicago home.

Our work at The Montessori School of Englewood is important because in these times of overtesting and obsessive quantification of student achievement, teachers working in challenging Chicago settings like ours are rarely given the chance to practice teaching methods that nurture “unquantifiable”   but utterly essential learning attributes such as curiosity, enthusiasm, cooperation, respect for difference, sticktoitiveness, and reflection. These are qualities that all serious educators recognize as fundamental building blocks for lifelong learning.

Regrettably, the cultural opposite of child-centered, Montessori education -- known as “zero tolerance”  -- is too often the norm in urban schools. Examples of these non-progressive practices currently in vogue include so-called “rigor”   translating into public student rankings and chastisement of children not meeting expectations. None of these practices develop the whole child, and generally produce adverse results.

While fear-based practices like these cannot be good for any child, they are especially counterproductive for vulnerable children who enter school with a myriad of external challenges to overcome. We want to serve as a model for other schools with demographics similar to ours that wish to infuse trauma-sensitive practice with culturally responsive curriculum and child-centered teaching and learning.

The Montessori School of Englewood is one of the first public schools in Chicago to offer a free Montessori education in an underserved community. Because nearly 100 percent of our School’s students are considered “at risk”— due to poverty, exposure to familial or neighborhood trauma, and/or beginning school with inadequate school readiness — the program infuses an holistic intervention philosophy into daily classroom and school practice—one that attends to the social emotional needs of its children, their families, and communities.

The School’s mission is to create a learning community where members trust one another to use their heads, hearts, and hands to commit to a life of growth and fulfillment. We intentionally involve and support families in the life of the school. We aim to offer positive experiences that foster children’s academic growth while facilitating individual and community-wide healing. We seek to free the potential of each and every one of our students by giving them what they need to develop, progress, and become fully realized individuals.

The Field Foundation has helped us to become the school we are today. As one of our first funders, the Field helped educate us on how to develop relationships with foundations. They had faith in us. They visited the school and met the kids, seeing the needs first hand. From the very beginning, Field’s program officers were healthy skeptics of our vision, which forced us to critically examine our assumptions so we could be sure that our efforts remained authentic – that we were truly serving the community in the way we promised to do. The Field held our feet to the fire, put us through our paces, and challenged us to do our best.

It was vitally important for the School to receive that seed money from Field in order to launch a successful early childhood program in the under-resourced community of Englewood. Because the School is still growing (we will reach full capacity of 520 students in 2018-19), we must increase our fundraising goals every year, especially during this period of draconian budget cuts. We must provide our children with specialized spaces like a state-of-the-art science lab and places to create art and make music. Having the support of the Field Foundation opens doors to other funding sources, communicating that we are a solid investment.

The Field’s support also makes possible our vision to educate the whole child because without it, we could never offer programs beyond “the basics.” It gives our kids the opportunity to be in a performance, to interact their city, to feel they are part of a community. They are exposed to a rich arts program, which we emphatically believe is good for the mind, body, and soul. Field’s support has also enabled us to provide augmented academic support for our students. We have an unusually high number of children who enter the School needing differentiated instruction, and this support enables us to hire specialized staff and purchase needed materials to better serve these children.

Our new location, a spacious and historic building surrounded by open space, enables students to cultivate a vegetable garden and sell produce to our neighbors. The vast majority of our students experience food insecurity on a daily basis, which is why we make food the source of experiential learning and collaborative enterprise. We focus on the delights of cooking and sharing a meal, the physical pleasures of sowing and reaping, and the peace that comes with dwelling in nature. Our aim is to nourish students’ minds as well as their spirits. This is just one example of how the generous and visionary support of the Field Foundation has impacted the lives of our kids. We feel that our success is Chicago’s success.

The Field Foundation made it possible for us to begin our quest to become an anchor institution in the Englewood community. In the years to come, we will provide children and families with education stability – something that more affluent neighborhoods might take for granted. Most, if not all, public school closings take place in poor communities like ours. We are deeply grateful that the Field staff believed in us, which reflects the great strengths of the foundation: its openness to new ideas and capacity to nurture and steward ambitious projects. In our case, the Field recognized an opportunity to bring an education model generally associated with elites to a community that is very far from affluent. With continued support and partnership, we hope to become a model for other such ambitious education and community-building initiatives.

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© 2016 Field Foundation
All photos by Olga Lopez