New Kids On the Block

Opened in 2014, First State Montessori Academy is growing its enrollment, adding two grades, and finding its downtown location an advantage

Creating a new school can be a bit like completing a jigsaw puzzle. It requires vision to put the pieces together properly.

As it prepares to start its fourth year of operation in downtown Wilmington, the First State Montessori Academy is seeing all its pieces fit nicely.

Enrollment should top 500 students this year as the school adds a seventh-grade class, and could grow to 660 in the fall of 2018 when an eighth grade is added. The school received more than 600 applications for 91 open seats this year, so its waiting list has more than 500 names.
They must be doing something right.

“Every time I go into the school, I’m in awe,” says Meredith Rosenthal, whose son and daughter attend the school. “Every student seems engaged. You can see them engrossed in their learning, working together.”

As Rosenthal sees it, the school’s board of directors and staff adhere to a very basic principle: “They only do things if they know they’re going to do it well.”

That started in 2009, when the leaders of several private Montessori schools in New Castle County began meeting to develop a plan to bring Montessori education into a public school setting. An application filed that year with the state Department of Education’s Charter School Office did not win approval, but the group expanded its membership, refined its proposal and submitted a successful application in 2012 to open a new charter school. (A charter school is a public school, funded primarily by state and local tax dollars, but it is operated by a board of directors, not a local board of education, and is not subject to all the same rules and regulations as traditional public schools.) As originally planned, the school would open in the fall of 2013 with 241 students in kindergarten through sixth grade and grow to 325 students in its fourth year.

“We just did it one step at a time,” says Yvonne Nass, president of the school’s board of directors.
Preparing a charter school application is no mean achievement. The completed document totaled 635 pages, with details about curriculum, finances, discipline policies, health and safety, and the qualifications of the board members and staff.

Head of School Courtney Fox is a former first-grade teacher in the Brandywine School District and Delaware’s Teacher of the Year in 2008. Photo Joe del Tufo

Head of School Courtney Fox is a former first-grade teacher in the Brandywine School District and Delaware’s Teacher of the Year in 2008. Photo Joe del Tufo

But that was just the beginning. As has been the case with many new charters in Delaware, it took First State an extra year to open, partly because of difficulty finding a suitable building.

“We looked all over New Castle County,” says Courtney Fox, the head of school, a first-grade teacher for 15 years in the Brandywine School District and Delaware’s Teacher of the Year in 2008. “Old school buildings were not available. We looked at a lot of empty office space.”

They applied for space in the Community Education Building, the former MBNA/Bank of America office building acquired through the Longwood Foundation and retrofitted with the goal of housing up to four charter schools dedicated to meeting the educational needs of Wilmington’s low-income students.

The application wasn’t approved. “The schools that were accepted had in their mission statement that they would serve certain communities,” Fox explains. “Our mission was to serve a variety of communities.”

The Right Place and Space

As it turned out, First State would settle in another surplus MBNA/Bank of America structure, a former corporate childcare center at 920 French St., just two blocks south of the Community Education Building. “It was the right size, the right space, with the right amenities,” Fox says.
“The kids could move about, there were large hallways, the rooms had observation windows,” Nass adds. “We decided that it was our spot.”

And, since it was built as a daycare center, it didn’t require much retrofitting.
But there was one hitch. First State made an offer to buy the building, but the Buccini/Pollin group put in a higher bid. So First State wound up as BPG’s tenant.

First State faced two other significant start-up hurdles: ensuring that the Montessori curriculum would cover all the items in the Common Core standards recently adopted by Delaware (and many other states) and recruiting teachers trained in Montessori methods.
“Common Core tells us what to cover. We modify our content to fit lesson planning and methods,” Fox says.

“It wasn’t that hard,” says Liz Madden, a 17-year Montessori veteran and the school’s director of education. “The Common Core standards are more challenging, more rigorous, but Common Core doesn’t dictate how you teach something.”

Montessori educators require special certification beyond meeting the standards for a state teaching license. The certification involves taking a seven-week summer course and a series of projects that are completed while working in a Montessori classroom.

“A couple of our teachers live downtown, and a couple live an hour away,” Fox says. “Because there are fewer certified Montessori teachers, we have to cast our net wider.”

Hiring hasn’t been a big problem, Fox says, partly because teacher salaries at First State, while slightly below the range for teachers with comparable experience in traditional public schools, are higher than those offered at most private Montessori schools in the region.

Mary Falkenberg, who had spent 12 years teaching third grade in the Colonial School District, joined the First State staff last year after spending the summer taking her Montessori training. This summer, she says, she has to turn in the papers she completed during the school year and take a final exam for certification.

As with private Montessori schools, First State uses multi-age grouping, with kindergarten and first-grade students together, then second and third grade, then fourth through sixth.

Two Teachers Per Classroom

Each classroom has two teachers and there’s a Montessori-certified teacher in each one, Fox says.
Having two teachers working together makes a huge difference, Falkenberg says. “If I give a lesson and a student is struggling with it, he or she can go to the other teacher for additional support.”
The arrangement also allows teachers to play off each other’s strengths, she says. “I was more science, my co-teacher was more artistic. I love teaching third grade writing with essays, and she likes phonics and decoding.”

While Montessori teachers spend plenty of time instructing, students do a lot on their own, following weekly “work plans” designed by their teachers and based on their needs. A morning meeting starts the day, which includes some group instruction and special classes like art and music. But the biggest chunks are a pair of two-hour blocks during which students work on their own without interruption.

Look around a classroom and you’ll see some students reading quietly, others collaborating on a group project, and some using blocks or other materials as they work out their math lesson. “If a couple of kids want to do something at the same time, they have to learn to share, or to wait and check in later. They have to figure out a plan for how to get it done,” Fox says.

The biggest difference between a traditional school and Montessori is how students build their sense of independence, Falkenberg says.

“They have their own work places. Kids have more freedom in choosing their own work. Some will pick their favorite subject and work on it first. Others will save the best for last,” she says. No matter how they set up their agenda, “they get so excited at the end of them, saying, ‘I completed my work plan. I got all my work done.’”

Staying with the same teacher and classmates for two or more years benefits young students, Rosenthal says, because “unbelievable relationships are developed, both student-to-student and student-to-teacher.”

Rosenthal relates another positive she has noticed with her son Max, who just completed sixth grade. “Watching him in grades four through six, he really matured,” she says. “He felt responsible for the younger kids in the classroom. He became a mentor and a role model.”

Max’s maturation in the Montessori environment is one reason he is staying at First State, rather than transferring into a middle school in the Brandywine district, as the school adds seventh and eighth grades, his mother says.

Adding the two grades was an instance of a problem becoming an opportunity.
In the school’s first two years, Fox explains, it was losing students who would have entered sixth grade, largely because parents felt their children would be more comfortable moving into a middle school, which typically serves grades 6-8, for sixth grade rather than for seventh grade.

First State contemplated dropping back to a K-5 structure, but a survey of parents indicated that most would keep their children at First State if grades seven and eight were added.

In the fall of 2015, the school forged ahead with that plan, but had to find a second building to house the additional students. At about the same time, the Delaware MET, a charter high school that had just opened across the street from First State, failed. Due to a series of management, curriculum and discipline issues, the state ordered Delaware MET to close at the end of its first semester. The Charter Schools Development Corporation, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that had purchased another former MBNA/Bank of America building at 1000 French St. and leased it to Delaware MET, now had an empty building on its hands. Just as 920 French proved to be an ideal initial location, the building across the street was just right for First State’s expansion.

Downtown Advantages

A large part of First State’s appeal to students and their parents is the array of downtown amenities available through the school.

“Putting suburban kids in a city environment—new sounds, new sights, new experiences. It opens up a whole new world,” Rosenthal says.

While students at suburban schools might take a field trip to a play or a concert, First State

Students follow weekly “work plans” designed by their teachers and based on their individual needs. Photo Joe del Tufo

Students follow weekly “work plans” designed by their teachers and based on their individual needs. Photo Joe del Tufo

students regularly walk to musical and theatrical performances at The Grand, the Playhouse on Rodney Square or First & Central Presbyterian Church. Kindergarten students take dance lessons at The Grand, and grades four through six visit the Wilmington Institute Free Library once a week. “Their artwork gets displayed in the library. That’s a big deal for them,” Rosenthal says.

First State parents provide strong support for the school, Fox says. Some help with landscaping around the building, others staff the teachers’ workroom.

Another group takes regular assignments handling the lunch program. First State contracts with the Community Education Building to prepare and deliver student meals. Parents sort the lunches by class and take them to each classroom and, when they’re done, they assemble breakfasts for the next school day in the same fashion.

“We’ve got a core group of 10 to 15 parents, and others fill in. They try to take the same day each week. With seventh and eighth grade, we’ll probably need more,” says parent Corey Lamborn, who will be coordinating the assignments this year.

“It’s really fun to be there, to see your own kid at lunch time,” she says.

In addition to contracting with the Community Education Building for its lunches, First State uses the back office services of Innovative Schools, a charter school support organization, for its bookkeeping needs, and collaborates with other downtown charter schools on professional development for staff members.

First State’s enrollment is roughly two-thirds white and 25 percent African-American, Latino or multiracial. About 12 percent are considered low-income, and 8 percent have special education needs, according to the latest school profile report filed with the state Department of Education.

About a quarter of the students live in city ZIP codes; the rest come from all over New Castle County, Fox says.

There’s more than a little irony in those enrollment figures. A generation ago, when court-ordered desegregation began in northern New Castle County, student assignments were made with an eye toward setting school enrollments at about two-thirds to three-quarters white. Most white suburban parents were unhappy with their children having to attend city schools for up to three years; many black parents from Wilmington complained that their children endured long bus rides to the suburbs for up to nine years.

With the lifting of the desegregation order more than 20 years ago, and the subsequent development of charter schools and choice programs, few white children from the suburbs are now attending traditional public schools in Wilmington. But the enrollment numbers for First State Montessori demonstrate that there are suburban families who will choose to send their children to a public school in the city.

The Montessori curriculum is certainly a factor in the school’s popularity, board president Nass says. And it’s a plus that leaders like Fox and Madden were well known in the public school and Montessori communities, she adds.

“Parents are looking for choice. They’re shopping,” Nass says. “And we are very clear about our mission.”

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