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CMS Montessori magnets are popular, but some question access

For a glimpse of the complexities involved as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools tries to expand school choice, consider the Montessori magnet program.

It’s a longstanding favorite at the elementary level. CMS has added schools at that level, as well as launching a middle school Montessori magnet a few years ago. Earlier this month, responding to pleas from parents, the district agreed to try high school next year.

The cost to CMS is minimal and the Montessori families celebrated.

But Carol Sawyer of OneMeck, a group promoting school diversity, had a different take. “White privilege wins again,” she posted on Facebook the next morning.

Her concern, shared by some school board members, is with the starting point: Most students who get a chance to move through the CMS Montessori program start in prekindergarten.

That means if your child will turn 4 by Aug. 31, 2016, you have to enroll him or her in CMS by Jan. 11 to have a crack at the magnet lottery for next year. If you enter and your child gets a seat – last year the odds were about 1 in 3 for prekindergarten applicants – you’ll pay $3,000 in tuition if your child enrolls.

Scholarships are available to help low-income families whose 4-year-olds “win the lottery.” The aid available has been more than enough to cover the requests from families, according to a CMS report.

But board members Ericka Ellis-Stewart and Tom Tate say the current process throws up too many barriers for low-income families whose children might benefit from the Montessori program, which encourages creativity and lets children make many of their own choices. Many families just don’t know about Montessori for 4-year-olds or give up when they hear about tuition, they said.

When the board approved a Montessori ninth-grade program last week, it also instructed Superintendent Ann Clark to report back on increasing access to early-years Montessori magnets. One possibility, suggested by Ellis-Stewart and endorsed by Tate, is setting aside seats for students who qualify for free prekindergarten through the district’s Bright Beginnings program.

“We have a lot to do to make sure that we have an equitable opportunity,” Tate said.

Board members didn’t talk about white privilege. But the district’s four K-6 Montessori schools are whiter and more affluent than the district as a whole. Of almost 1,100 students in those four magnets, 57 percent are white, compared with 29 percent in CMS. Twenty-two percent of the Montessori students come from low-income homes, while roughly 56 percent in CMS do.

(Click dots on the map below for details of each school.)

The debate over a relatively small program has countywide relevance because the board is looking at ways to reduce racial and economic isolation. Most members agree that high poverty levels hobble academic achievement. Most also say they’d prefer to use choice to change demographics, rather than doing a massive shift of school boundaries.

But they haven’t figured out how to do that. Sawyer, a former CMS parent and longtime education activist, says there’s no painless way to make a real change.

“They don’t like to acknowledge that in order to break up a high-poverty school you also have to break up a high-wealth school,” she said.

The Montessori ‘cult’

The Montessori program, named for the Italian educator who created it in the early 20th century, is arguably the most distinctive magnet program in CMS.

Even the youngest children work independently, in classrooms with mellow lighting and soft background music. They learn ways to relate to each other and navigate their world, not just pass tests.

“It is a way of life,” says Park Road Montessori Principal Anna Moraglia, who says she and her faculty joke about joining a cult. “Maria Montessori’s goal was world peace. She believed that world peace could be achieved through the children.”

That’s why Moraglia and other Montessori proponents say the program isn’t right for families who see it as just another prekindergarten option. Some enter the lottery without visiting schools and understanding what’s required.

“We already have a problem of families entering the Montessori program without really understanding what they are getting into, and then it is sometimes difficult to get the family to buy into a philosophy and teaching method,” said Montessori parent Dara Whittle, who pushed CMS to add a high school. “It really works best when the family is consistent in the messages of teaching independence and natural consequence-based learning.”

While children learn reading, math and science, they do it in ways that look different from most classrooms. Students don’t get letter grades, and homework assignments might include playing a game with the family or doing chores at home.

Parents who expect a traditional structure or don’t realize their whole family is expected to immerse itself in Montessori often find the program a bad match, Moraglia said.

Starting early

CMS created Bright Beginnings prekindergarten, which is serving about 2,600 children this year, to ensure that disadvantaged children aren’t left behind when they start kindergarten. Eligibility is based on skill deficiencies rather than family income, but poverty levels tend to be high among Bright Beginnings students. That’s why some board members see it as a potential pool for Montessori diversity.

Moraglia says parents whose children are screened for Bright Beginnings are told about the Montessori option for 4-year-olds.

But she’s wary of setting aside seats – or even describing Montessori as prekindergarten. “We’re something very different from Bright Beginnings or Head Start,” she said.

The Montessori program is designed to start with 3-year-olds, the model used in private schools and some South Carolina magnets, Moraglia said.

The CMS program groups 4- and 5-year-olds in “primary” classrooms, with grades one to three and grades four to six also sharing multi-age classes. Moraglia tells parents she expects students who enter at 4 to make a commitment for the full stretch.

Carving off seats would likely spur protest from families already lining up to get their kids into Montessori.

Last year about 640 students applied for pre-K seats in the four Montessori magnets and about 220 got in, according to lottery results posted on the CMS website. The biggest wait list is at Park Road, where 63 got in and 220 were wait-listed.

Barriers and opportunity

The $3,000-a-year tuition, which applies only during the pre-K year, is less than what parents would pay for a private Montessori school or even standard child care. There’s also a $2,200 half-day option.

Each Montessori school can award up to 20 pre-K scholarships for classes that range from 38 to 64 students. At most of those schools, that wouldn’t be enough to cover a poverty level over 50 percent, reflecting the CMS average. But a three-year report on pre-K Montessori aid released Wednesday shows that scholarships have consistently gone unclaimed. This year, for example, only 35 of the 80 possible scholarships are taken.

Kindergarteners and first-graders can also try to get in through the magnet lottery. But with prekindergarteners moving up, openings are limited. Starting in second grade, applicants have to go through a late-entry interview to see if they’re suitable for any available seats. Montessori experience is desirable but not required, Moraglia said.

Sawyer says all those steps add up to a system that filters out all but the most savvy families up front, then creates a privileged track that has now been extended through high school. She said the issue has long been “one of my little, quiet outrages,” but she started emailing board members this year because of the high school plan and the broader student assignment review.

“We’re about to work on a major diversity plan,” she said, “and this magnet is anything but diverse.”

CMS magnet lottery

▪ Students who turn 4 by Aug. 31 are eligible for Montessori prekindergarten classes. Those who turn 5 by that date are eligible for any kindergarten.

▪ New students must enroll in CMS by Jan. 11 to be eligible for the first round of the 2016-17 magnet lottery.

▪ The magnet lottery is open through Jan. 25.

▪ The district will hold a school options fair 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Jan. 9 at the Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology, 1430 Alleghany St.

▪ Details:; click “student placement” at the top of the page or choose “options lottery application” for current students or “enroll your child” for new students under Spotlight. Reach the student placement office at 980-343-5335 or

Student assignment review

The school board’s policy committee will continue its review of student assignment policies 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Thursday in Room 528 of the Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St. The meeting is open to the public. Goals include setting a timetable for the rest of the review and making a public engagement plan.