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.”