Future of Schools

This network of Montessori ‘micro-schools’ is bringing a new charter concept to Indiana

PHOTO: Courtesy of Wildflower Schools
A teacher works with a student at Marigold Montessori School in Haverhill, Mass., which is part of the Wildflower Schools network.

A Montessori “micro-school” model too small and too autonomous for traditional accountability measures wants to launch several charter schools in Indianapolis.

The Mind Trust granted $250,000 this week to Wildflower Schools to develop its model, mostly used across the country in private schools, to fit a public charter school design.

It could take about three years before Wildflower opens schools in Indianapolis, as it sorts through critical challenges to becoming a charter school, said Brandon Brown, the Mind Trust’s senior vice president of education.

Many of Wildflower’s principles don’t easily match up with what state laws expect from charter schools. Its micro-schools intentionally limit an entire school to the size of a typical single classroom, and teachers — not principals or school boards — lead the schools.

That’s exactly why the Mind Trust, an education nonprofit and charter school incubator, wanted to bring Wildflower to Indianapolis, Brown said. He hopes it could break new ground in Indiana’s charter sector and introduce a new idea about what public schools could look like.

“It’s really hard to be incredibly creative and incredibly innovative when you are held accountable to kind of one-size-fits-all accountability model,” Brown said.

Wildflower micro-schools enroll only 20 to 30 students led by two teacher-leaders, and they often open in storefronts so they can feel embedded in communities. Each of the network’s 14 schools operate separately, without the typical administrative structure of most schools or districts.

Wildflower is testing how to pair a Montessori approach with technology to help teachers observe and track students’ behavior, through strategies such as embedding sensors into materials and students’ shoes.

“The idea of Wildflower is in many ways parallel to the idea of charters where the charters were trying to break down the construct of hierarchical districts,” said the Wildflower Foundation CEO Matt Kramer, who formerly co-led Teach for America.

Like the idea of charter schools, Kramer added, the Wildflower model aims to be “accountable to results” and “less accountable to process.”

Kramer said he was attracted to Indianapolis because the city and its largest public school district are supportive of charter schools. He expects to open three to four Wildflower schools here in 2020 at the earliest, but locations and school leaders have not yet been identified.

With the Mind Trust funding, Wildflower will spend the next few years working through key questions before going through the charter school application process with a local or state authorizer.

Those challenges, Kramer said, include: How can the micro-schools show accountability if they’re too small to receive an A-F grade or have test scores publicly reported?

How can teacher-leaders maintain “radical autonomy,” as Kramer puts it, while being overseen by a charter school board?

Where can the schools open in Indianapolis to be “diverse by design,” as Brown said, and maintain the socioeconomic mix of students that they seek to serve?

Would they partner with Indianapolis Public Schools as possible innovation schools, where they can leverage district services while maintaining control of their schools?

Kramer said underlying those challenges are questions about school choice in general that he thinks haven’t yet been answered: “How much choice do we really want to give to parents? Do we think, collectively, as we think about schools— do we think it is enough to have informed parents choose what they want to do, or is that not enough?”

Wildflower is opening another charter school in Minneapolis, Kramer said. At other locations, the micro-schools look for other public funding mechanisms, such as vouchers, so that families across income levels can afford to attend.

In Indiana, Wildflower is starting a private school in Fort Wayne, which Kramer said will likely seek to accept vouchers.

When asked about academic results at Wildflower Schools, Kramer said it was too soon to tell. The first Wildflower school opened in Massachusetts in 2014, and he said none of the schools had been evaluated yet. He cited instead research on the successes of the Montessori method.

Correction: February 16, 2018: This story has been corrected to clarify Wildflower’s use of technology in schools.

The New Chancellor

Tell us: What should the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, know about New York City schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at P.S. 69 Journey Prep in the Bronx paints a picture. The school uses a Reggio Emilia approach and is in the city's Showcase Schools program.

In a few short weeks, Richard Carranza will take over the nation’s largest school system as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Carranza, who has never before worked east of the Mississippi, will have to get up to speed quickly on a new city with unfamiliar challenges. The best people to guide him in this endeavor: New Yorkers who understand the city in its complexity.

So we want to hear from you: What does Carranza need to know about the city, its schools, and you to help him as he gets started April 2. Please fill out the survey below; we’ll collect your responses and share them with our readers and Carranza himself.

The deadline is March 23.

buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”