Students at Magnolia Montessori for All. Courtesy Photo.

Jeff Bezos, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Joshua Bell, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Sean Combs all have multiple things in common. All are icons. All have achieved fame for some form of mold-breaking originality. All have achieved great success.

All were educated in Montessori schools.

The connection between Maria Montessori’s educational philosophy and the particular brand of success achieved by the aforementioned luminaries is strong. Jennifer Davey, head of school at St. Paul’s Episcopal Montessori School, believes that the education offered at her school is as practical as it is appealing.

Jennifer Davey
Jennifer Davey

“It’s the best way to educate children. It’s the only way that makes common sense,” said Davey.

She points out that the fundamental goals and values of Montessori create the sort of character that can succeed in any culture and economy, even one shifting as rapidly as ours.

Citing Lazlo Bock’s book, “Work Rules!,” she lists five attributes that Google looks for in their new hires:

The ability to think on their feet.

The kind of leadership that steps in when needed, and backs away when others should be leading.

The humility to learn from failure.

Ownership of tasks and problems that are rightfully theirs.

Notably, expertise is lowest on this list.

Expertise is additive. It can be built onto any foundation with the right input-to-time ratio. Character, however, has to start from the foundation, and it shapes the whole person, including how they employ their expertise. Will they innovate or will they be too afraid? Will they support the team, or will they insist on their own way?

“You can’t build character. It has to grow,” said Davey.

One of the distinctives of Montessori curriculum is the level of responsibility assumed by the students. They are expected to keep orderly workspaces, resolve conflicts amongst their peers, all the while pursuing their academic education. “Pursuing” is an active verb. Maria Montessori believed that every human being had an innate drive to learn. The teachers, often called guides, provide material and necessary explanation, but the natural curiosity and interest of the students propels the learning.

Sara Cotner is so convinced of the efficacy of Montessori education, that she believes it should be an option presented to every child, free of charge.

To that end, she founded Montessori for All, a 501(c)3 aimed at placing public charter schools around the United States. Her first campus, Magnolia Montessori for All, opened in the fall of 2014 in Austin to full enrollment in PreK-third grade. Next Cotner has her sights set on San Antonio, the only major Texas city without a public Montessori school.

Cotner agrees with Davey that Montessori curriculum benefits every kind of student, and prepares them well for any life pursuit.

Students at Magnolia Montessori for All. Courtesy photo.
Students at Magnolia Montessori for All. Courtesy photo.

She points out one third grade student who entered the year reading at a first grade level. By April she was reading at a fourth grade level. She also celebrated the student for participating in her father’s dance troupe at the school’s recent Noche de Primavera celebration.

Bringing diverse ages and cultures together in the classroom is integral to Montessori education.

St. Paul’s and Magnolia both have multi-age classrooms. Children stay with the same teacher for three years, cycling through as the youngest, middle, and oldest in the classroom. It gives them a chance to practice both humility and leadership. The littles are inspired by their older classmates, who in turn take ownership of the veteran status.

To achieve their desired diversity, St. Paul’s and Magnolia prove that private and charter schools can be accessible to low-income populations and appealing to those who have abundant choices. St. Paul’s provides substantial financial aid to nearly 50% of their student body, with 15% of their budget going toward scholarships. This allows them to draw many students from their mixed income neighborhood, Government Hill.

Magnolia is tuition free, however Cotner knew that location would have just as much to do with the makeup of the student body. She chose a piece of property in Southeast Austin. It feels rural, not rooted in any particular demographic. Part of the rural atmosphere is a necessary byproduct of an ideal Montessori campus.

As Cotner seeks a location for the San Antonio campus, she wants to find a facility or piece of land that will fulfill the same mission. She wants to be within loop 410, close to multiple higher and lower-income neighborhoods. However the campus also needs ample outdoor space for children to interact with nature, a crucial part of their curriculum.

That curriculum, with so much hands on, open-ended material is the next major cost in Montessori for All’s expansion into San Antonio. The new school will need $3 million dollars to acquire a facility and stock it with learning tools. However, these materials do not need to be purchased every year, and after the initial fundraising campaign, Cotner’s budget will allow the school to run on State and Federal income.

As a recipient of public funds, Cotner doesn’t take lightly the call for charter schools to cooperate with school districts.

“We very much want to partner with districts,” said Cotner.

A student enjoys hands-on learning at Magnolia Montessori for All. Courtesy photo.
A student enjoys hands-on learning at Magnolia Montessori for All. Courtesy photo.

Ultimately, Montessori for All aims to expand nationally, beginning in 2018. From there Cotner would like to begin codifying their results. Contrary to what one might assume, she’s not opposed to standardized testing to produce data and accountability. As long as it doesn’t inform instruction (teaching to the test) or dictate the learning process with constant benchmark testing throughout the year, Cotner feels that standardized tests shouldn’t be a problem.

Her attitude reminds me of my own third grade teacher, back when Texas was one of the early adopters of test-based accountability. Before we took the TAAS test, our teacher, who had given us one practice test the week before to make sure we understood how to fill in the bubbles, said something to the effect of: “You know everything on this test, but it’s pretty long. Just make sure you go to bed early and eat a big breakfast so you don’t get hungry or sleeping in the middle. It’s nothing to worry about.”

Cotner plans to take her data and her best-practices to start a teacher training center, and eventually work as consultants for school districts seeking to start their own fully public campuses.

Such is the confidence of Cotner, Davey and others who believe that Montessori education is equipping students to do more than pass a test, more than get a job, more than earn a degree.

They maintain that Montessori education, when it is faithfully interpreted, cultivates the confidence, creativity, and competence in children. Those children grow up experimenting, failing, trying again, and taking ownership of their dreams. So it’s not surprising that when they succeed, they do so outside the box, and the world takes notice.

*Featured/top image:Students at Magnolia Montessori for All. Courtesy Photo.

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Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.