Magazine article Poverty & Race

City Garden Montessori School in St. Louis: A Story of Education Reform, Gentrification and Housing Advocacy

Magazine article Poverty & Race

City Garden Montessori School in St. Louis: A Story of Education Reform, Gentrification and Housing Advocacy

Article excerpt

When I moved into the Shaw neighborhood in the City of St. Louis in 2005, the cost of houses that had been rehabbed were already a stretch for my family and many middle-income families. Still, Shaw and the neighborhoods surrounding it offered one of the only spots in the city where white and minority families live sideby- side, and where people of varied income brackets coexist.

It only took me a few weeks, though, to realize that there are essentially two separate neighborhoods within Shaw-a white neighborhood and a black neighborhood. At neighborhood meetings, mostly attended by white residents, the topic of conversation was often "problem properties," occupancy permits for businesses that might bring "trouble," and the latest crime horror stories.

As my children approached school age, I started to realize how this separation and skewed power dynamic played out in our area schools. I would watch most of the African-American kids in the neighborhood walk home from the neighborhood district school (which was failing and has since closed), or get offthe bus in the afternoon. When I would (very occasionally) get up for a 5:30 a.m. run, many African-American young people were waiting at bus stops throughout the neighborhood. Meanwhile, the white families I knew were considering to which magnet or private schools they would send their children.

The formation and evolution of City Garden Montessori's charter school was developed in response to this.

In 2005, my oldest son, Jude, was four and attending City Garden Montessori's existing preschool program. Reine Bayoc, an African- American parent, had also moved into the Shaw neighborhood, seeking a diverse neighborhood for her family. Reine's four-year-old daughter and my son had become preschool buddies, and Reine and I tagged along with them on field trips and outings. We began to discuss the school situation somewhat obsessively, deeply frustrated that diversity, high quality and affordable or free did not seem to exist in schools around us. We approached City Garden's founder, Trish Curtis, about the possibility of expanding upon the preschool that she had been operating since 1995 (which our children attended), to open an elementary school that embodies all of these qualities.

We got to work with Trish and other parents, envisioning and creating a charter school that would serve this pocket of the city, the goal being that the school would be rooted in these neighborhoods, and reflect the diversity that existed here. The school would implement the Montessori approach, which holds respect for self, others and the community at the core of its philosophy.

This was no small task, and, lacking public school, legal, financial or other expertise, we were way out of our league in many respects.

However, over the next two years, we managed to write a charter, secure a sponsor and, most incredibly, we won a U.S. Department of Education start-up grant of $560,000.

We knocked on doors and talked to families in neighborhood shops, playgrounds and daycares, working to build relationships and trust in order to create a solid and diverse community of families who would embark on this great experiment with us. We recruited Montessori teachers to join us in building a school that fulfills Maria Montessori's original vision to serve and empower children of all backgrounds.

Various powers that be, in our neighborhoods and beyond, watched us with caution and skepticism; others simply ignored us, dismissing this small group of "nobody" parents.

Though the challenges were steep, amazingly, we succeeded.

Now, City Garden Montessori serves 275 children in preschool through eighth grade. In 2012, we were able to move into a newly renovated 30,000-square-foot building, and we have been ranked the highestperforming charter school in St. Louis according to state evaluations for several years. We have held true to our vision to be an integrated school, with about 50% students of color and 50% white students, and close to half are eligible for the federal Free or Reduced Lunch program (though this number has been steadily decreasing annually). …

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