At Armatage Elementary, two schools in one

How a Montessori program and a community school program coexist

Parents, teachers and administrators say that Armatage Elementary School "feels good."

When you walk into 2501 W. 56th St. building, you don’t notice a separation between the Montessori and community school programs because their classrooms are located alongside each other. Kids from each K-5 program see each other at lunch or recess while Montessori and community teachers share ideas and collaborate on projects. As a bonus, Armatage boosted enrollment when they opened their doors to the Montessori program three years ago – a key to staying open amid enrollment declines. Now the school simply has more to offer.

Under a barter system, the programs share a pool of resources, including the same budget, building facilities, a joint principal, PTA and Site Council. Montessori students use the media center, gym, art department and technology that Armatage already had in place – features that Montessori usually goes without.

"We’ve worked really hard to make this one school. The Montessori has made the school viable," said Armatage Principal Joan Franks, who also juggles acting as principal at Kenny Elementary and lives in the suburbs. "Everyone really pulls together. It’s an incredible thing to watch. I couldn’t be more proud," she said.

The original three Montessori classrooms are now six; there’s a waiting list to get in and few transfers out. Boundaries for the Montessori extend between the Crosstown Highway and downtown and between I-35W and France Avenue South – in contrast to the community program, which just draws from a smaller neighborhood area. Some Montessori students’ bus ride lasts 40 minutes; many say it’s worth the hassle.

A Montessori classroom

Montessori instruction is based on the Italian instructor Maria Montessori’s 1929 philosophy that espoused individualized and hands-on learning, and differs from a community school curriculum, said Montessori kindergarten teacher Jane Campbell.

The most visible difference between Montessori and Community classrooms is a shelf that’s lined with wooden, color-coded materials that are specific to Montessori work and can be applied to each grade level, Campbell said.

For example, 5th-graders use the same materials as kindergarteners, but their applications are more sophisticated. The tools also fine-tune motor skills. The colorful wooden maps, abacus-like math tools and moveable alphabet are self-correcting in that they allow students to "see" errors themselves, independently. Teachers don’t shame kids by telling them that they’re "wrong." Because the materials are well crafted, they inspire longevity, Campbell said, adding "They are big, beautiful and expensive, which makes kids want to take care of them.

"Things make sense, so kids never think they can’t do something. That’s the best part of Montessori. I never understood math until I did it the Montessori way as adult," she said.

According to Seth Kirk, a Kenny resident and father of two Armatage Montessori kids, "Montessori has the ability to adapt to where the child is at. It involves more listening.

For example, when Kirk’s oldest son came home full of multiplication problems, his daughter wanted to learn to multiply, too. Although just a kindergartener, her teacher was able to show her simple multiplication with the materials.

Martha Archer’s 2nd grader is also enrolled in the Montessori, "My daughter loves it. She couldn’t be happier. She’d rather not be home on Christmas break. She’s a phenomenal reader and really focused on getting to learn to read."

Archer also likes the hands-on aspects, "Kids are actively involved in their learning instead of rote memorization," said Archer.

Montessori teachers keep meticulous records, gauging a child’s progress, and they build confidence by emphasizing strengths first and then gradually introducing tougher assignments.

Additionally, instead of desks, a Montessori classroom features tables where kids work in small groups. Each has his or her own workspace contained on floor mats. The teacher guides learning one-on-one or in small breakout groups. He or she doesn’t stand before the entire class to lecture. When the class does fully assemble, they gather in a circle.

Partner programs

Campbell is quick to add that the Montessori program is not "better" than the community school program. It’s one reason Armatage likes having both.

Several parents say they like the hybrid concept, as it affords them the opportunity to consider what best fits the needs and learning styles of their kids. They can even enroll their children in both, such as Keela Cottew who has two daughters following the Montessori path and another daughter enrolled in the community program.

Cottew’s oldest daughter began the community program before the Montessori was added. Although mom liked the tenets of Montessori, she didn’t pull her oldest out of the community class because she wanted to remain with friends, and "it works just fine for her. We’ve always liked her teachers and felt confident that she’d continue to do well there," Cottew said.

Still, the Montessori program isn’t for everyone. Mary Richardson, the president of the PTA said, "Some kids are better served with the community-style, which is more structured. It’s not mutually exclusive. You try to find the right fit for your child and how they’ll be able to succeed."

Principal Franks herself added that only one of her two sons would’ve flourished in the Montessori program. While Montessori gives some children legroom to surpass typical grade-level expectations, the criticism is that it doesn’t offer enough structure. If children need that structure, they might not advance. Teachers may not push them to the next lesson until their interest has burned out.

Still, teachers touted the symbiosis between two programs. Community school kindergarten teacher Joan Demeter said she valued the camaraderie among staff, "That’s always a wonderful thing because you can draw strength from that. You can get a different approach to lessons," she said.

In fact, she liked the idea of mats so much that she bought mats for her class, "That’s a great way physically to define their space," Demeter said.

Like the Montessori kindergarten instructor, she strives to cultivate peace in her class. She keeps kids enthusiastic with a lot of songs and starts the day by greeting everyone and trying to make them feel welcome. Demeter also stressed the importance of hands-on activities. Both programs also have multi-age classrooms (called "spooling" in traditional schools), and the community classes don’t study at desks either.

Marketing Montessori

Dennis Shapiro, a Linden Hills resident whose position on the School Board ended earlier this month, publishes numerous materials about Montessori education through Jola Publications. Shapiro said Armatage was a good example of a national trend to couple community with Montessori programs. "It seems to be working well at Armatage. It’s tough because a lot of times schools end up with two PTAs," from which a lot of other issues emerge, he said.

The school’s report card is a nod to the Montessori/community hybrid. Not only is Armatage one of the few to make adequate yearly progress (AYP), acing the quality performance indicator under the national standard "No Child Left Behind," they made the highest marks in the district, tying only with Lake Harriet Community School, 4030 Chowen Ave. S.

Although there are significantly fewer community school classrooms than there were prior to the Montessori addition, Franks said that that had more to do with a citywide struggle to retain students. Franks assured that no matter how popular the Montessori program became, it wouldn’t surpass the community program: The number of Montessori classrooms will be capped at 10. Of 390 students total at Armatage, 120 are Montessori kids in kindergarten through 5th grade.

The upcoming School Choice initiative has pushed the school’s PTA to take an active role in touting the advantages of the Montessori/community combo. According to PTA representative Seth Kirk, the PTA took $5,000 from its own piggy bank (money from fund-raisers) in a PR campaign that highlights the qualities of the combo. Some of their efforts include pamphlets; open houses with school tours; a redesigned logo/mascot, which is a kangaroo cartoon generated by a parent graphic designer; lawn signs; dropped off literature at area preschools; and printed window decals. They also might rent a billboard and have turned to corporate sponsors.