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Montessori Grappling with Feds: 'No Child' law stifling instruction

If you had walked into Kay Jordan's Montessori class at Double Tree Elementary two years ago you would have seen children on mats, counting beads to learn place values for math or working with jigsaw-puzzle maps to learn the continents. The children would have been in small groups, some working on geography, others working on math, and some reading.

In Montessori classrooms like Jordan's, children control their learning with the guidance of trained teachers. Students work at their own pace, using hands-on activities to make abstract math and language concepts more concrete.

But teachers fear the Montessori program is slowly dissolving at Double Tree, which opened in 1977 as the state's first public Montessori school. It is now one of an estimated 4,000 public and private programs in the United States and 7,000 worldwide.

Worried their Montessori classes are becoming too traditional amid strict accountability under No Child Left Behind, Double Tree teachers will spend this summer and fall finding ways to keep the Montessori program intact.

The law's timed benchmarks that require all children to be proficient in math and reading by 2014 are at odds with the Montessori philosophy that allows a child to learn and pick up concepts as the child feels ready, Double Tree teachers say.

"This is uncharted territory," principal Brenda Powell says. "The federal laws have never governed us as they do now."

Double Tree's worries have reached the Memphis school district's central headquarters office, where Supt. Carol Johnson, a former elementary Montessori principal herself, says more must be done to help keep the school's Montessori program strong.

Johnson is calling for more training for Montessori teachers so that Double Tree can find ways to meet state and federal benchmarks without giving up its Montessori program.

Double Tree's Montessori program with nearly 300 K-3 students runs differently these days.

Students still spend some time with beads and puzzles, but more time is spent at desks.

Increasingly, students are learning the same subjects at the same time, students slower to pick up concepts being rushed along with the faster learning ones, just as in traditional schools.

"My favorite quote from Maria Montessori is we must 'follow the child,' but I'm not doing that any more. I'm following the curriculum," Jordan says. "That's just about an irreconcilable difference."

Some Montessori teachers give nearly daily math quizzes to gauge how close students are to meeting federal and state proficiency standards.

Unlike private Montessori schools, public Montessori schools must have a certain percentage of students pass the TCAP each year or face sanctions under the No Child Left Behind law. In a traditional Montessori approach, students rarely take tests, relying instead on their own and their teacher's assessment of their mastery of a concept before moving on to more advanced ideas.

Public Montessori programs across the country have felt the same pinch under No Child Left Behind, officials with the American Montessori Society say.

Janniece Garner hopes the Montessori program will stay at Double Tree, where her 6-year-old son, J'Len, is a kindergartner.

The interactive style in Montessori has J'Len more interested in school, Garner says, which is why she chose to send him to Double Tree instead of his neighborhood school, Fairley Elementary. His teacher got J'Len so hooked on world geography that J'Len came home excited and hung a world map on his bedroom wall after school one day, she says.

"Montessori's great because it's not about pushing children to get to a certain point by a certain time, it's about letting them reach there on their own," Garner says. "It breaks concepts down to the simplest form, so they can get that foundation and keep building on it."

The district also is working toward creating a preschool class for 4-year-olds at Double Tree so the Montessori method starts earlier than kindergarten.

— Ruma Banerji Kumar
Memphis Commercial Appeal


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