This summer, Kansas City Public Schools made a significant investment in one of two district-operated Montessori schools in an attempt to address long-standing inequities between the programs.
“Right here in KCPS we have a jewel, but Border Star is the Montessori program everyone knows about,” KaLinda Bass-Barlow, principal at Holliday Montessori, says.
Holliday was built specifically for Montessori education, opening as a magnet school in 1992, back when district officials thought state-of-the-art facilities might convince white families to stay.
Today, the school is 93 percent black.
Bass-Barlow stands in a sunlight-drenched hallway, pointing out the trails that connect the school to the nearby Lakeside Nature Center. The spacious classrooms and open-air courtyards haven't helped recruit Montessori-trained teachers.
“The reality is Holliday has been here and hasn’t had trained teachers in areas,” Bass-Barlow says.
Two Montessori schools
Unlike Holliday, Border Star has been able to retain its Montessori teachers because the school is accredited through the Association Montessori Internationale. In a district that is three-quarters black and Latino, Border Star is 44 percent white. There’s a long waiting list to get in. Parents of wait-listed kids are given the option of enrolling them at Holliday, but most of them decline.
“I want it to become more diverse, but it is what it is,” Bass-Barlow says with a shrug. “I love my brown babies.”
Bass-Barlow is herself what’s known as a “traditional” principal, someone brought in to lead a Montessori school who doesn’t have a Montessori background. The handful of Montessori-certified teachers left at Holliday were immediately skeptical of Bass-Barlow when she was hired last year.
“There was anxiety about a non-Montessorian – again, yet another one – running this school,” says John Freeman with the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector, the consultant Bass-Barlow brought in.
Bass-Barlow knew she’d need help turning Holliday around. She called consultant after consultant, but no one was willing to come to Kansas City.
“I believe that was the biggest piece that won the staff over. For them to be able to see she doesn’t stop after being told no,” Bass-Barlow says.
Then Freeman listened to the increasingly desperate messages Bass-Barlow left him and thought she just might be the public school principal he’d been looking for. He arrived last October.
A strong principal
It’s actually not uncommon to hire traditional principals to lead public Montessori schools.
“You need someone who’s bilingual in district talk as well as Montessori speak,” says Freeman, as the expectation that students perform at grade level on state tests is almost antithetical to the Montessori philosophy of self-directed learning. “There aren’t a lot of Montessorians who want to run a public Montessori school.”
Longtime teacher Mary Newman-Dodd says support for Holliday has ebbed and flowed over the years.
“It’s all dependent on downtown,” says Newman-Dodd, who retired at the end of the 2016-17 school year. “It’s a very expensive program to run. We haven’t always had the financial support to keep the training going and the materials in place.”
Montessori classrooms cost about $30,000 more to equip than traditional ones. Training is also expensive – it can cost up to $11,000 to get a teacher certified to teach Montessori.
Newman-Dodd says public Montessori schools need strong principals who will advocate for their unique needs.
“Affluent schools, private schools? They can afford it,” Bass-Barlow. “But Montessori started with children in poverty. The children who need it most are these children here in KCPS.”
Jennifer Collier sees herself in Principal Bass-Barlow – she hadn’t had any Montessori training when she arrived at Border Star in 2012, either.
But she had parents, staff and students who made it very clear to her that Montessori-trained teachers were important.
“Many people think it’s a private school,” says Collier of the stately brick building at 63rd and Wornall in the Brookside neighborhood. “I received lots of emails and phone calls from parents who were interested in how I can get my child into this private school? I had to explain to them we are part of Kansas City Public Schools.”
Collier says the district was willing to make a similar investment at Holliday, but that’s not what the principal at the time wanted.
“One of the leaders told me she sort of preferred traditional teachers,” Collier says. “So I think for many people it appears there’s been a disparity between the two schools, but I think we’ve allowed principals to decide whether or not to have Montessori-trained teachers.”
Collier says while principals should have autonomy, the district also has an obligation to provide students with a quality education at both its Montessori schools.
A new school year
For years Barb Kluepfel taught art at Holliday. Her classroom was right across the hall from Bass-Barlow’s office.
“Everyone gives you the red, yellow and blue – the really boring stuff,” says Kluepfel, shuffling through a stack of paintings in which the pinks pop. “(I tell the kids), ‘Now I’ve ruined you because you get the cyan blue, the magenta and the yellow.’ It just makes the most beautiful colors.”
In May, Kluepfel hung up her smock. But it wasn’t to retire. She went to Dallas with Bass-Barlow and five other teachers for intensive Montessori training.
“(It) was a lot more energizing than me sitting around home keeping the house clean,” jokes Kluepfel, who is now teaching Children’s House, the combined classroom for 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds. “I mean, you get all this brand new information, and it really just charges you up for these children you’re going to be working with.”
Bass-Barlow is a lot more confident as her second year at Holliday begins.
“Whereas last year I really didn’t admit this to people, I’m used to being an instructional leader – and by instructional leader, being in the trenches, knowing what’s going on, getting in there, modelling, doing lessons with them – I couldn’t do that last year,” Bass-Barlow says. “That’s what training gave me. I feel like it empowered me.”
The training cost the district $75,000. Bass-Barlow says it’s put Holliday on the path toward Montessori accreditation.
“No longer will we be the school that’s over here doing Monte-something,” she says. “Now we’re able to offer quality Montessori.”
And word’s gotten out. Though Bass-Barlowe still has a few open seats in elementary school for children with prior Montessori experience, she also has more than 50 kids waiting to get into Children’s House.
Elle Moxley covers Missouri schools and politics for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.