Monday, January 14, 2019

The Shelton School: Montessori for the Learning-Different

The Shelton School: Montessori for the Learning-Different

For students who grapple with learning differences, the Shelton School in Dallas, Texas is the largest private institution in the world. It has nearly 900 students but boasts a teacher-student ratio of just one to six, making clear its dedicated commitment to children’s individuality and distinct learning styles. Among Shelton’s staff members, the Montessori method is especially prized as a way to help students reach their full potential.
            “It is unique and irreplaceable for me,” says Dr. Joyce Pickering, Shelton’s executive director emeritus and current vice president of the American Montessori Society. “Montessori allows me to reach children in a way that helps them be successful, protects their self-concept, and prepares them for the future.” 
            Shelton is well equipped to do just that. Founded in 1976 by Dr. June Ford Shelton along with a small group of parents, the Shelton School had only 26 students when it began. Since then, it has grown by nearly 10 percent each year, and the school now has more than 200 staff members to serve its students.
            Although it has lots in common with other Montessori schools, Shelton faces some unique challenges. “[We] must work intensely to individualize the programs to each child’s needs,” says Dr. Pickering. The school deals exclusively with students who are classified as “learning-different,” meaning that they meet or exceed intelligence levels of other kids but may struggle with challenges including dyslexia, ADD, ADHD, speech difficulties, or language disorders.
            Shelton’s staff is a tight-knit group that relies on one another to emphasize positivity, create a nurturing environment, and place students’ needs first. “The staff works in a very collaborative way to share ideas and strategies to unlock the learning abilities of each child,” notes Dr. Pickering. “The staff also works to highlight each talent that the student has, so that the student and his parents will appreciate the strengths and not just focus on the weaknesses.”
            To help parents and staff pinpoint the nature of learning difficulties and productively address them, Shelton has an on-site Evaluation Center. Staff members at the center assess any students who need attention and produce detailed learning, behavioral, and psychological profiles from which to move forward. The school’s Speech Clinic is also open to any students who struggle with language- and speech-related difficulties or social communication skills.
            Dr. Pickering also champions Shelton’s Outreach Center, which aids teachers and Montessori professionals worldwide in setting up their own elementary and early-childhood resources and institutions for learning-different children. The Outreach Center offers training, structured language courses, and educational presentations throughout the U.S. and in overseas locations including Europe, Canada, Brazil, China, and Australia. “My dream is that Shelton’s endowment will grow to help the school continue to flourish and [enable] Outreach to set up Shelton replications around the U.S. and the world,” says Dr. Pickering.
            One implication of Shelton’s Outreach Center is that more Montessori schools and teachers could benefit from in-depth knowledge and training related to speech, learning, and communication disorders. Dr. Pickering advises heads of schools of administrators who work with the Montessori method to “continue to learn about children who learn differently so that they will have the knowledge they need to help each child in the ways they learn best.”
            In keeping up with that mission, Shelton has employed a new head of school, Suzanne Stell. Stell’s Montessori training began nearly three decades ago in Dallas at Dean Learning Center, where she received instruction from a Montessorian co-worker and then employed it in her own classrooms. Stell agrees that education and training are essential for schools that cater to learning-different students, but she also stresses how important it is to find the right people to put in classrooms. “Well-prepared teachers can take a child at any stage of learning and gently guide the child to reach his potential,” she says. “The right teacher is one who can ‘follow the child’ by providing what he needs, when he needs it, in the way he needs it. Not every teacher will be able to understand and incorporate this concept, no matter the education or training.”
Stell names improving students’ confidence as a top priority as she eases into her role at Shelton. “Many students have lost their self-esteem and love of learning by the time they get to us,” she says. “We must help them by providing a learning environment that they can succeed in. Young children may respond in a matter of weeks, [but] for adolescents who come to use for the first time, confidence-building can take a lot longer.”
            With such a rich history and reputation behind it, the Shelton School may seem limited in how it can continue to improve, but Stell doesn’t see it that way. “Shelton has always been ahead of the mainstream when it comes to educating children with learning differences,” she says. “Obviously, technology will play a big part in educating our students over the next ten years. More important, however, is employing teachers who can fit into our ‘Shelton way.’ Our staff is the most important reason we have seen such success with students in the past, [and] they will continue to be our most significant asset in the future.”

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Feature: Marta Donahoe, 2019 AMS Living Legacy

Marta Donahoe, 2019 AMS Living Legacy

“How do you measure the way in which young people care about each other and support each other?” asks Marta Donahoe.

It sounds like a rhetorical question, but in a world where education is largely measured by standardized test scores, it’s an important topic for Montessori educators. In 2010, Donahoe was faced with this question head-on when the school she started in 1994, Clark Montessori, became a finalist in the nationwide “Race to the Top” Commencement Challenge. Each competing school made a short video showcasing its students and their accomplishments, in an effort to bring then-President Obama to speak at its graduation ceremony. The Clark Montessori students designed, produced and submitted the video themselves, and suddenly, their school was in the national spotlight.

“It really helped validate the work we do that’s more invisible to the rest of the world,” says Donahoe. “In lots of ways, you’re always swimming upstream and moving against popular culture. Our kids aren’t going to a school that has bragging rights like class rank or AP classes. That’s by design, of course, but it takes a kind of strength of character for kids who have choices about where they might go to keep coming to a school where you’re not speaking that same language.”

As the AMS 2019 Living Legacy, Donahoe has a long history of trailblazing in the Montessori community. She began as a Montessori teacher back in 1979. Although she first worked with younger children in a private school, she felt called to work in public schools with older students and more diverse populations. After Cincinnati’s Board of Education approved a proposal for a Montessori middle school in the early 1990s, it came time for someone to spearhead the project.

“I was so beside myself with wanting to do it [that] I didn’t want people to know. It was almost embarrassing,” says Donahoe. With two other teachers, Donahoe worked long hours to start the school. After several years as a junior high, Clark became the first public Montessori high school in the United States. 

“We really had no intention of starting a high school,” says Donahoe. “I told [a few students that] if they really wanted the high school, they had to research. The class was working on a project to choose a local issue they wanted to impact, and the group decided to research what a Montessori high school might look like, and maybe they could take it to the Board of Education. They did! The Board was pretty impressed. Starting a high school was another whole bunch of years of dedication and inspiration and hard work, but it’s been pretty fun.”

Donahoe’s passion for Montessori secondary education is obvious, and after spending years giving workshops all over the world, she came to accept that she had valuable tools to share with others. Through the Feminist Leadership Academy in Cincinnati, she conducted a yearlong project designing what a Montessori secondary education training program for teachers might look like. In 2003, she began the program, called Cincinnati Montessori Secondary Teacher Education Program, or CMStep for short. In its first year, CMStep trained about eight teachers. Last year, it trained 80. 

“People are recognizing that the work isn’t finished when kids are 12,” says Donahoe. “There’s been a growing interest in middle and high school across the country. I think our [program] has grown out of that need, but also because we’re doing really interesting work in terms of giving teachers the tools to be successful.”

Over the past few years, after giving so much of herself to Clark and CMStep, Donahoe has found a happy medium that allows her to stay involved while taking advantage of opportunities to write, teach, and spend time with family. She now acts as a remote consultant for Clark and Director of Professional Development for CMStep, and she has moved to Asheville, North Carolina, where she can spend more time with her two granddaughters. “I’m looking forward to eventually getting bored,” she says with a laugh, “so I could see what might be on the other side of that boredom! But the work in Montessori at the adolescent level is still so pioneering and compelling, I’m not sure I’ll ever get to that point.”