LAUDERHILL — For the past two school years, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School in Lauderhill has earned an “F” grade, according to the Florida Department of Education. Prior to that, it held a “C” or “D” average.
But as school began last week, educators are hopeful that, by adopting the Montessori educational method, MLK Jr.’s marks will improve dramatically.
“I’m hoping that it’s going to be a model for the district and for the nation to say, ‘OK. This is what urban education can look like,’” said Dr. Mark Strauss, a director at the Office of School Performance and Accountability.
Montessori is a proven, hands-on method and a departure from the traditional approach MLK Jr. has been using for years. For example, in the Montessori method, children learn at their own pace in multi-age classrooms, rather than through established, grade-specific standards. Students can move about the classroom freely – there are work tables, rather than desks. And, instead of having schoolwork corrected by a teacher, children spot their own errors through feedback.
“Montessori allows you to meet a child where they are through projects-based learning,” said Dr. Rosalind Osgood, the District 5 Broward County School Board member. “It almost eliminates the teacher standing in front of the class and lecturing.”
Shawn Martin, parent of a first grader, said he expects teachers to practice more patience, which, he added, would facilitate more learning. “Now you have to do a little more explaining and talking to each child,” said Martin, 43.
The transition to a Montessori school began last year, said Principal Cheryl A. Proctor. MLK Jr. joined the Student Success Opportunities Schools (SSOS) Initiative which reviews school performance and brings together school district officials, community members and parents to consider different educational options.
“It’s not that our children can’t learn – that’s the lie – but what are we doing that isn’t reaching them?” Proctor said. “What can we do differently?”
Through multiple meetings, the group chose the Montessori method.
“Given the right opportunity and learning environment, all of our kids can do better but they can’t do it through a model that’s one-size-fits-all,” Osgood said.
Angel Cox, who walked her children to school Tuesday morning, said she likes that the Montessori method allows children to learn at their own pace.
“I have one that was behind in her reading, so I’m hoping they’re going to meet her where she is and she’ll be able to bring up her reading,” said Cox, 28.
Broward County has two Montessori magnet schools: Beachside Montessori Village in Hollywood and Virginia Shuman Young Elementary in Fort Lauderdale. MLK Jr., which is located at 591 NW 31st Ave., some 480 students, and is the first public community Montessori school in Broward County Public Schools.
Located in the heart of Lauderhill, a largely black community with an above-average crime rate, the student population is mostly black and nearly all students receive free or reduced price lunch.
Montessori, Proctor said, is often associated with private school education.
“Parents pay top dollar to send their children to this form of education. Now, the community gets something that’s so highly valued, said Proctor, who has a copy of The Illustrated Maria Montessori standing upright on a table in her office.
The book tells the story of Maria Montessori, an Italian physician, educator and philosopher who developed the method of teaching that bears her name.
Strauss pointed out that both Martin Luther King Jr. and Maria Montessori were advocates for peace.
“The two were so aligned to embracing difference,” Strauss said. “We want that message to be aligned not just in the walls of the school, but in the community.”
Proctor, who is beginning her second year as MLK Jr.’s principal, said with the transition 22 teachers were newly trained in Montessori methods, 11 were already Montessori certified while about 30 untrained teachers were moved to other schools. Teachers of extracurricular courses like physical education did not require training.
The new, holistic approach relies on parental involvement to reinforce school lessons in areas such as self-control, respect for the environment, respect for others and independence.
Erika Walker, 27, attended a parent-training session but said she didn’t feel like she was given enough information. “It’s something I’ll have to Google on my own to learn about,” said Walker, who has children in second grade and Pre-K.
Proctor said that past sessions drew “sparse numbers” and she’s hopeful that the next meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 27, will be better attended.
“It’s about normalizing the children to their new environment now and having the parents support the work that we’re doing to sustain Montessori education here at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Montessori Academy,” Proctor said.
The school’s name has not yet been formally changed. The School Advisory Council will next month start the process of recommending the change to the School Board of Broward County, she said.