In the late 1990’s, I was a graduate student and single mother of a preschool aged son. Like most mothers, I promised myself that I would do all that I could to provide my child with a lifestyle where he felt loved, encouraged and equipped to reach his highest potentials. In order to keep this promise, I decided that I had to make his education a top priority. Don’t get me wrong, I know that most mothers count their children’s education as a major concern. However, as a black mother, I also knew that the stakes were extremely high for black children; and even more so for black boys. During my graduate studies, I couldn’t help noticing a couple of research studies that seemed to indicate that young black boys were often inappropriately placed in special education courses or misdiagnosed with any number of behavioral conditions. In my mind, this did not bode well for my son’s wellbeing; not to mention his educational outlook. Hence, this was an urgent matter.
Nevertheless, with my son’s 4th birthday approaching, I began researching local learning centers in hopes of finding a good preschool program. I spent several weeks observing primary classes at various schools. Suffice it to say I was not impressed by what I had observed. In fact, I was completely turned off during one specific school visit when a preschool teacher told me that “kids just wanna learn their numbers, colors and letters.” To make matters worse, she went on to say that most kids are simply not interested in learning much more than the basics. Needless to say, my eyes completely glossed over and I politely, yet abruptly, ended that conversation. After taking immediate leave of that insanity and regaining my composure, it occurred to me that most of the schools that I had visited seemed to share the belief that younger children should spend time playing, rather than engaging in robust learning activities. To be honest, at that point, I was beginning to feel a bit dejected. I worried that I might not find the educational setting that I had hoped for. I wondered what to do about my son who, at age 3, had already met the “numbers, colors, letters” milestone and was, by this time, reading, adding and creating rather sophisticated Lego superheroes to boot. Was I supposed to allow my child to settle for a subpar early learning experience? Were my expectations too high?
After spending a few weeks feverishly seeking but not finding, I ran into a former co-worker and friend whom I had not seen in quite some time. Naturally, we began to play “catch up” and I mentioned that my son would soon be starting school. I also mentioned my dissatisfaction with the schools that I had visited thus far. After patiently listening to my gripe fest, my friend encouraged me to check into the local Montessori school where her daughter was in attendance. Montessori? What? Do black people even go to Montessori schools? My curiosity was immediately peaked! I asked and she answered about a hundred rapid fire questions about the educational philosophy as well as the social and learning environment. At the end of the conversation, she assured me that the school strongly encouraged diversity and that we would feel very welcome.
The next day, I contacted the school and within a few days my son was scheduled to attend a class on a trial basis; I was invited to observe. After the observation, I was brimming with excitement! I was intrigued by the practical, hands-on learning techniques. I also loved the fact that the students were encouraged to think independently, work cooperatively, and to respect each other as well as their larger environment. I also liked the practical nature of the learning activities. I was thrilled to see 3, 4 and 5 year olds happily and successfully engaging in activities like identifying parts of the human anatomy and locating world continents! But, above all else, I loved the fact that my son was genuinely happy with the Montessori experience. After we left the school that day he told me that he couldn’t wait to go back.
This Montessori school seemed to be the answer! So what about cost? Naturally, I had to seriously contemplate the price tag. Granted, this was a private school, but after doing the math, I determined that the tuition was not much more than the cost of a “good” local daycare. And with that, I began the application process. Within a month he was enrolled in primary class and ultimately completed each grade level though grade 7. It is important to note that at that time, our local Montessori schools did not extend beyond grade 8. As a result, my son ended up graduating from a traditional college preparatory high school.
All in all, I cannot stress how happy I am with our Montessori experience! In later years, I enrolled my daughter in the same Montessori school that my son attended. She is currently a 4th year student in upper elementary. I love to tell people that I am the proud mother of two “Montessorians” and to answer my previous question; yes, black people do go to Montessori schools!
Today, I am proud to report that my son is doing well and is a Biology Major at Emory University.
I would love to hear your thoughts on education in general and Montessori or other alternative education philosophies in specific.