Seniority or certification?

Realignment redux: public school Montessori classes don’t always receive certified Montessori teachers

Liz Conway painstakingly sought the best educational setting for her kids. Having attended a Montessori school as a youngster, she chose the Montessori program at Armatage Community School, 2501 W. 56th St.

Conway was disappointed when she learned earlier this year that her son would be in a class with a non-Montessori-certified teacher. She described it as a bait-and-switch by the school district.

"There’s the expectation that a teacher should know Montessori and be trained in the method," Conway said.

Montessori is a teaching philosophy based on a hands-on approach to academics. Problem-solving that students might learn on paper become three-dimensional concepts in skill-building games. Studies are individualized so that they parallel a kid’s pace, rather than the class as a whole.

For now, the problem is resolved – a certified Montessori teacher is back in the classroom. However, Conway and other parents remain convinced that it’s only a short-term fix because ongoing district layoffs have led to the displaced Montessori teachers.

Montessori is a magnet program meant to attract kids to Minneapolis schools. It provides children and their parents with an alternative to traditional school programs, but offering Montessori means having teachers trained in its specialized learning techniques.

As cuts have been made to teaching staffs, some Montessori teachers lost their jobs to teachers with more seniority, but without Montessori training.

The problem occurred at Armatage and Seward Montessori, 2309 28th Ave. S. this year. Not surprisingly, parents were upset. They say that qualifications such as Montessori certification should be equal to seniority rules when it comes to hiring and placement, so that the Montessori programs their kids are enrolled in maintain their philosophical integrity.

In 2005, 499 teachers were cut districtwide, while 71 were realigned. About 130 teachers are on a recall list.

At the heart of the issue is the question: When it comes to specialized programs such as Montessori, what matters more, seniority or certification?

This year, Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) had to cut $24 million out of its budget. Although MPS and the teachers’ union agreed to some loose guidelines stating that Montessori certification can be considered in the placement and hiring process, the cuts didn’t leave a lot of room for preferential treatment for anyone except those with six or more years of tenure in the district.

Teachers who’d built up seniority either kept their jobs or moved into other positions, often in other schools, in a process called realignment. The idea was simply to retain the senior teacher, as required by the teachers’ union, the Minneapolis Teachers Federation (MTF).

That means that senior teachers could fill Montessori teacher positions – even though they might not be trained or certified. Certification is the official backing teachers acquire after testing to a Montessori panel. The training process spans three levels and usually takes about two years to complete.

Said Conway, "For myself, I see a lot of value to seniority. It’s kept around a lot of good teachers. We need unions there for those folks. But we need to find a way to balance seniority with skill sets."

Montessori teaching: how specialized a skill?

This year, the district managed to track down a senior teacher who had Montessori certification for the Armatage job. The district also repaired a similar situation at Seward Montessori when they rehired a teacher who’d earlier been cut.

Parents at Armatage and Seward let out a sigh of relief, saying the integrity of the hands-on magnet program relies on having teachers with Montessori training. In addition to teaching methods diverging from traditional community education, Montessori students have the same teacher for three years in a row.

Parents say that substituting a non-Montessori teacher compromises the program’s philosophy. In contrast to the community school program, Montessori emphasizes abstract or tangible concepts through visual, manipulative aids. For instance, instead of working out a math problem or grammar question on paper, kids put three-dimensional puzzles together.

Montessori teachers need to know to use the materials that build on each other, said Armatage Principal Joan Franks, "It’s like a language. If you can’t speak the language, then it’s hard. Everyone agrees there should be a trained person in that role. We know that we don’t ever want to deal with this problem again."

Southwest’s "Area C" Superintendent Craig Hintz, who helped work out the Armatage scenario, echoed those sentiments, "Ideally, we want to have Montessori-trained teachers in Montessori classrooms." ("Area C" encompasses 20 schools in Southwest that stretch from preschool to high school.)

Parents, teachers and other school officials want Montessori teachers to have stable, secure positions. To ensure that Montessori certification can compete with seniority for teacher placement, they want to make it a formally recognized standard. To do so, they’ve joined forces with the state teachers’ union, Education Minnesota, in a campaign for what’s called "endorsements" for Montessori. Endorsements would be added to a teacher’s credentials and could be used to bump teachers with seniority.

MPS and MFT now have the advantage of a bill passed just this summer that allows the School Board and union to negotiate other terms aside from seniority during the cutting process. Previously, as a first-class city school district, MPS and MFT were limited strictly to seniority.

A quick fix

Nancy Johnson, the non-Montessori-certified teacher who was temporarily placed at Armatage said it wasn’t her choice to be moved there. She was previously an elementary teacher at Kenny, 5720 Emerson Ave. S. teaching 1st and 2nd grades. Johnson said she likes to teach reading.

Although she didn’t have any personal contact with parents, when she arrived at Armatage she had concerns of her own that she expressed to MFT. She worried about her inexperience with Montessori.

"I really view myself as a primary teacher. I felt like, ‘Why am I here when I have no Montessori training?’"

Later, when MPS asked her if she’d be interested in teaching a 2nd-grade class at W. Harry Davis Academy, 1510 Glenwood Ave. N., she eagerly snatched it up.

Now, she says, she’s happy at Davis Academy.

The issue of retaining certified teachers has also been an issue at Bryn Mawr’s Parkview Montessori, 252 Upton Ave. S., according to Seward Montessori parent Carla Bates. She argued that just as teachers must be licensed to teach elementary, middle and high school, they should be licensed to teach Montessori.

Said Bates, "We’re trying to retain real school choice. We’re willing to help get money for teachers to get the Montessori certification, but we’re not going to do that just to lose those teachers because of things beyond the control of parents."

Montessori isn’t the only program struggling with the problem of teachers bumped by seniority rules. Bilingual and music areas experienced similar problems – such as the Spanish Immersion programs at Windom, 5821 Wentworth Ave. and Emerson, 1421 Spruce Pl., where teachers who weren’t fluent in Spanish were realigned last year.

At Emerson, that first grade class split its time with another first grade class. Scott Smith, whose son was in that class, said that was a good solution. However, he wondered, "Is it an immersion school when not all of the teachers speak Spanish?"

While some Montessori parents brainstormed ways to balance seniority with qualifications, their guideline was a "Memorandum of Agreement" signed by MTF President Louise Sundin and district representative Steve Belton last summer.

The memo states that "Certification to instruct the Montessori Method, which is recognized by the Association Montessori International or the American Montessori Society, may be used as a requirement in hiring or placement of teachers into a Montessori program."

Although Armatage parent Steve Schroer was satisfied with the district-union agreement that reinstated Montessori teachers at Armatage and Seward, he criticized the fact that the memo hadn’t been adhered to.

"I certainly don’t think the problem is over despite strong and clearly worded guidelines. It seems pretty clear that if parents hadn’t organized, we would’ve had this forced on us. But it’s a good sign that we were able to get attention," said Schroer.

However, Sundin said such memos were usually just a quick fix and didn’t necessarily leave a lasting impression. The memo hasn’t been incorporated into the teachers’ contract yet.

Additionally, Sundin worried about the emphasis on certification: "Certification doesn’t in and of itself indicate whether a teacher will be a good Montessori teacher someday. I fear that by making certification such an issue that parents may lose out on good potential Montessori teachers for their children."

Sundin defended teachers who she said were attacked by parents for their lack of Montessori endorsements and certification, "There were teachers who were not treated professionally nor kindly in all of that activity. That’s not acceptable."

She added, "It’s always the union’s goal to place teachers in spots where they’ll do best."

Striving for endorsement

School Board member Judy Farmer said the district currently addresses parents’ concerns about Montessori and other specialized programs. She said that it’s common sense that some programs demand specific skills or training.

Farmer said part of the reason the district was able to respond to the need for Montessori-certified teachers at Armatage and Seward is because of the new state law giving Minneapolis flexibility. It enabled the district to look to factors other than seniority for teacher placement.

A labor law amendment last winter also provided that the district can "recruit and retain highly qualified teachers to work collaboratively with the district and site teams."

They have the freedom to "place teachers with licenses or endorsements for specific educational programs e.g. autism; immersion or language specific; [and/or] Montessori programs in the case of teacher lay-offs."

MPS and MTF are involved in negotiations regarding certification. Licensure is currently recognized as a standard for hiring or placement, but certification isn’t formally recognized. English-language learner (ELL) and special education teachers already require licenses.

MPS and MTF coordinate efforts with a movement led by the statewide teachers’ union, Education Minnesota, to seek support for what are called "endorsements" for programs such as Montessori. Endorsements would be added by the state to teaching credentials for those teachers with Montessori certification. Endorsements would carry weight similar to licenses.

Farmer said all Minneapolis Montessori teachers would be eligible for the endorsements. She wants to steer the endorsement concept toward other areas also.

"There’s a pretty good case to be made for a special endorsement for speaking another language," Farmer said.

She said programs requiring special skills or training should have teachers who meet those qualifications.

But Armatage Montessori teacher Tammy Goetz, who teaches a combined 3rd-to-5th-grade class, said the Montessori method was more about training than certification.

Goetz said having the background or skills didn’t always come from official certification. She said some teachers haven’t actually been certified but rely on each other for mentoring. For example, Goetz hasn’t completed the last of the three ranks of Montessori certification, but a former Montessori teacher has passed along some wisdom and advice regarding that level of expertise.

Because not every teacher is certified, the bumping situation wouldn’t totally be solved, she said. Montessori teachers without certification would still be displaced.

Goetz said it was complicated further by the fact that there are different levels of Montessori certification. Because there are several levels of certification, endorsement wouldn’t accurately reflect the experience or training of a Montessori teacher.

Emerson parent Kathy Kurdelmeyer agreed that working to endorse all certified teachers and using that as a strict criteria would be a sacrifice. It would mean cutting good teachers who aren’t certified.

"I really love my son’s teacher, but we’d have to commit to letting go of teachers without certification," she said.