This article appeared originally in Chalkbeat. Link to full article in Chalkbeat
When her son Carlton was born, Yolanda King started saving money for private school. As a special education teacher in the Detroit Public Schools, King said she never imagined entrusting her child to the cash-strapped district that had so often let her down. “DPS has definitely disappointed everyone,” she said. “Even before I had kids, it saddened me some of the things they did in the district.”
But four years later, King doesn’t even live in Detroit any more — she moved this year to a nearby suburb — but she drives Carlton into the city every day to attend a public school.
It’s not that Detroit schools have significantly improved. Despite a recent financial overhaul that resulted in a new name — the Detroit Public Schools Community District — and more money for classrooms, the district still faces severe academic and financial challenges.
But something happened this year to change King’s thinking about the district: It started offering Montessori instruction. The popular educational method that allows children to learn at their own pace in mixed-age classrooms not only appealed to King as someone who sent her son to a private Montessori preschool. It also said something larger to her about the district’s relationship with its children and its future.
“It was an opportunity for DPS to prove to me as an employee that it really valued our students,” she said. “[It shows they’re] looking at different ways to educate, to kind of give something back instead of taking something away, as they typically unfortunately do.”
Montessori has long been associated with private schools, particularly preschools. But a growing share of the country’s 5,000 Montessori programs are now run by school districts or charter operators who see offering the new approach as a way to compete for families who have many options. But as Montessori becomes more common in public schools, the programs often face steep challenges as they try to shoehorn a non-traditional approach into a traditional bureaucracy.
How can students learn at their own pace when there are state tests looming? Should some classrooms get new wooden blocks while others lack textbooks? And in Detroit, there’s an added question: Will the district be stable enough to sustain the new program in the years to come?
“DPS unfortunately is the king of let’s start it, let’s try it for a minute or two, then — oop, no, scrap,” King said. “But my hope is that with a lot of parent involvement and a lot of community support, we can make sure the program grows and is pushed forward.”