Many parents’ dreams are finally coming true: public Montessori education is coming to San Antonio in the 2017-18 school year.

The San Antonio ISD board approved an in-district charter for a Montessori school at Steele Elementary, which closed in 2015. Right now the district anticipates opening with around 130 students in the “primary” program for ages 3-5. The school will then scale up with those students.

The board also approved charters for the Advanced Learning Academy, Lamar Elementary, CAST Tech, Twain Dual Language Academy, and Ogden Residency Lab School, bringing the total in-district charters to 20. The distinctive features at these campuses include flexible curriculum, extended hours and calendars, and other innovations that provide more choices for families and enhanced instruction for students.

“If we really want to meet our goals to enhance enrollment in the district…this plays right into what we’re trying to do,” SAISD Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Matt Weber said.

The charters are each designed to spread innovations and best practices throughout the district and serve as incubators for creative solutions and professional development for teachers.

Families will have choices, but soon the district hopes that every school will be a choice school as the benefits pervade the district.

“This is the Platonic Ideal of what a school district should be providing,” Board Trustee Steve Lecholop said.

The district intends to continue pursuing diverse in-district charters.

“We see this as the beginning,” SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez said.

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez speaks about the importance of empowering English language learners.
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez speaks at Mark Twain Middle School in October 2016. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Steele Montessori is the latest in-district charter debuted by the district. Trustee James Howard expressed concern that it has not gone through the extensive community input process that other charters have undergone. Martinez explained that some of the rush was a result of wanting to take advantage of grants available to new schools.

The charter applications will bring in-state funding as well as the opportunity for up to $4.8 million in grants. Martinez and Board President Patti Radle confirmed with Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath that he is setting aside $20-30 million just for these kinds of initiatives.

Already CAST Tech, Ogden, and the Advanced Learning Academy have drawn attention from local education philanthropists including H-E-B, its CEO Charles Butt, and the City Education Partners. Trinity University and the University of Texas at San Antonio are pursuing partnerships with the schools, and the Relay Graduate School of Education will be creating the lab school at Ogden.

Trustee Ed Garza urged the superintendent and his team to ensure that the budget will cover the operating costs of the schools once partnerships expire or change.

Even without the extensive community brainstorming process, Weber is confident in the demand for Montessori. About half of the Montessori schools in the U.S. opened within the last decade, with more and more becoming public. Dallas and Longview ISDs are both considering bringing in public Montessori schools, Weber said.

“That is huge demand, and the demand keeps growing,” Weber said.

While the curriculum has been around for more than 100 years, beginning with Maria Montessori in 1907, its explosion in the past decade signifies a growing dissatisfaction with what parents feel is an obsession with test scores and grades. Montessori curriculum places an emphasis on the child’s inherent curiosity and desire to learn. Many call it a “follow the child” method and report that students are more free and happy in their classrooms.

“A lot of parents understand and have trust in the Montessori program,” Weber said.

In the Montessori curriculum, students are divided into multi-age classrooms and given many hands-on opportunities. They are often allowed to immerse themselves in work without interruption. When Weber visited a public Montessori primary classroom in Houston ISD, he was impressed by the intense focus of the 4- and 5-year-olds.

“It may not be for everyone, but there’s a lot of things that are very similar to what we are doing at our Advanced Learning Academy,” Weber said.

In inner city settings, Montessori’s social emphasis is an added value. The method encourages children to take ownership of their environment and to responsibly steward their resources. Responsibility for one’s self and kindness to others are integral to the learning method.

The board also approved the hiring of the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector to guide SAISD, following its success in Baltimore, St. Louis, and Boston, as well as an array of other cities.

Students in the Steele neighborhood will have first priority to enroll at the school, and the program will open to students in the district and beyond. If other cities foretell the demand in San Antonio, there could be a waitlist long enough to merit a lottery for students outside the neighborhood. In Houston, one public Montessori school received around 600 applications for 40 available slots, according to Weber.

Demand has also grown as the results from Montessori schools show that students do well on tests, even without making it a cornerstone of the curriculum. While parents might not want their children’s learning enslaved to tests, they do want to know that their kids are getting the knowledge they will need later. In fact some studies have shown that Montessori students perform better in science and math than their peers.

When SAISD wrote a grant for the program, it included training at Houston ISD’s Montessori Training Center. Weber does not anticipate having trouble filling the faculty positions, especially in the primary program. Still, the district is ready to help teachers pursue training and Montessori certification if needed.

Another public Montessori school is also setting its sights on San Antonio. Montessori for All, an Austin-based charter, plans to bring a campus to San Antonio as well. 

Currently there are 17 Montessori schools in San Antonio, only one of which does not charge tuition, Weber said. None of them are south of downtown. Radle pointed out that making the method available to the public is very much in line with the original intent of Montessori education.

Bekah McNeel

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