Treasure Hunt: Finding the Montessori School for your Family
So, you've heard about Montessori and you've decided you want to know more about it. First things first: you google "Montessori" and the name of your home town (BTW: Thanks, Sergey & Larry for making that so easy for us.) You find a list of schools that include Montessori in their name. Now, what?
How do you know which Montessori school is the right fit for your family?
1. Look for the accreditation. Montessori is an unregulated term, so it can be used by any organization with or without oversight. Many Montessori schools, however, seek accreditation through one or more of the national accrediting bodies. These accreditation processes validate the preparation of the teachers, school structures, age-ranges, parent roles, available materials, and more, to determine the "Montessoriness" of a particular school. The accreditation process is long and costly, both in time and fees, so not all schools seek accreditation, but it's a quick check to see whether the school you're considering has been vetted by a national Montessori authenticating organization.
2. Visit the school's website. The ways in which a school represents its values in images and words matter. Be careful of the catch phrases. Most schools will describe themselves as "addressing the needs of the whole-child," or using a "child-centered" approach. These are common words in the field of education, without a lot of specific meaning. Look instead for examples of how a school addresses the needs of the whole child. Does the website focus exclusively on the academic outcomes of the program, or does it include details about how children engage across a wide range of life experiences? Are there images of the campus that let you know how much time outdoors children may have? Do the classroom pictures illustrate tidy, aesthetically simple environments? If there's a calendar of the day on the site, does it include an extended work-cycle in which children are uninterrupted in the classroom? While the website is not likely to have been designed by the same people who are caring for children, those people contributed to the messages included on it. Use the web presence to get a sense of the way the school describes itself.
3. Visit the actual school. Ask to tour the school when the children are present. Do you see children actively engaged in their work? Do you see orderly environments in which you have to look around to find the teacher? Do you see beautiful, hands-on materials, or are there traditional toys and playthings cluttering the space? Do the children seem at ease, talking with each other comfortably? Does the environment feel warm and welcoming? Is the person offering the tour knowledgeable about Montessori and able to describe what you're seeing when you visit a classroom? Do the classrooms have a wide range of materials? Do you see children working alone, in pairs, in small groups, and with a teacher?
4. Ask thoughtful questions. What's the average tenure of the teachers on staff? How many are Montessori certified? How many children are in each class? Are they true multi-age classrooms spanning a three-year cycle? How many children stay for the third year? How does the school handle discipline? How does the school report to parents on children's development and growth? If there are lunch, before care or after care programs, are they consistent with Montessori philosophy?What do children at this school usually do over the summer? What schools do these children graduate into? Who is in place to substitute in the classroom when a teacher is absent? What are the ongoing expectations for professional development for the teachers? Are there parent education programs available and how often are they offered?
5. Ask to talk with parents of enrolled children or alumni. What is the parent community like? How accessible were teachers to parents? How close-knit is the community? How like-minded are the parents there? Do families tend to send multiple children through the school? Do parents feel welcome in the classroom? How do parents describe times when things went wrong (every school has those times!)? How are parent questions addressed?
6. Reflect on how you felt throughout the process. While Montessori as a method is appropriate for all children, not all school communities are the right match for all families. You'll find wide variation in how schools feel. Don't hesitate to walk away from a school that feels misaligned to what you value or what you think your child needs, even if it's a prestigious program. Likewise, don't be afraid of enrolling in a program that feels like a perfect fit just because their environment may not be as posh or polished as a different school. The relationship you build with your child's faculty will need to endure through your child's developmental challenges (we all have them!) or changes in your family structure, through times when you may disagree about school policies or times when you disagree about discipline or work or any of the other myriad of qualities in any community of human beings. When those challenges come, and they will, you will resolve them more authentically and more directly if they happen within a trusting, respect-filled relationship. Look for the school in which you feel like you'd be comfortable even when things aren't perfect. Most of the time, none of us are.
Time-consuming, yes. Worth it, undoubtedly.