Isthmus Montessori Academy

Henry Prell, 9, uses a grammar box as he works on the parts of speech in the elementary classroom at Isthmus Montessori Academy in Madison on Jan. 27. AMBER ARNOLD/STATE JOURNAL

Recently the Madison School Board voted to continue negotiations that, if approved, would turn Isthmus Montessori Academy, a private school, into a charter school. While providing a public Montessori option in Madison sounds good in theory, switching a private school to a charter school is not a good decision for our district. If the contract is approved, this charter school would take needed resources from our neighborhood public schools.

I have worked as a teacher in the Madison Metropolitan School District since 1997. I have raised my two biracial daughters in and out of Madison public schools. And, like many of the people who support Isthmus Montessori, I would like to see radical change in our district. A school system that truly honors children for who they are would be a much better place for all of us.

However, I disagree that Isthmus Montessori would create the change we want to see. It would provide change for the very small number of children (fewer than 1 percent of students in the district) who win the lottery to attend the charter school — but at the expense of other students in the district. It is neither logical nor equitable to provide such a small number of children with a learning environment focused on creativity, imagination and exploration while insisting on more rigidity and standardization in the regular public schools, which serve the vast majority of our students.

When I first started teaching, I was overwhelmed and grateful to have a packaged math curriculum — ”Everyday Math.” But “Everyday Math” didn’t make me a good math instructor. It didn’t teach me to listen to my students, watch how they solve problems, and guide them to greater challenges. The years I’ve spent taking classes, reading scholarly journals, observing excellent teachers and, most of all, learning from the children in my classes have made me a better teacher.

And yet MMSD teachers are now required to use standard, packaged curriculums for every subject, and they are expected to stick to the scripts and timelines of these pre-made lesson plans. The problem with the theory that anyone can teach, given a script, is that you don't get quality instruction that responds to students’ academic, social and emotional needs, or their interests. Quality instruction comes from highly trained teachers who help each child reach their full potential.

Rigid adherence to the timelines, rubrics and activities dictated by distant curriculum writers is part of what makes school alienating for many children. In our morning meetings, when we say to our students, “We care about you. Your ideas matter,” for the most part, they believe us. We completely contradict ourselves when we then make students “push through” purchased lessons that aren’t developed with their needs or interests in mind.

If we are going to foster equity in our schools and prepare students who are truly ready for the world, we need to transform our classrooms so they are child-centered, inclusive and, above all, joyful places to learn. Our students are unique, amazing individuals with various strengths and struggles. They grow and change right before our eyes, and they don’t follow any script. They deserve to learn in a way that inspires them to ask deeper questions, grapple with big ideas and think critically about the world around them and their place in it.

The Madison School Board ultimately voted to delay their decision on the Isthmus Montessori contract. I urge them to vote no on this contract. Rather than turning a private school into a public one, or spending one more cent on packaged curriculums, let’s create classrooms across the district that are grounded in social justice, and that support exploration and creativity as an integral part of learning. And let's do this for all children.

Jen Greenwald is a Madison teacher and mother of a student in a Madison public school.

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