The first time I gave serious thought to middle school was when my son was 5 years old,and I joined a teacher/parent effort to grow his school through middle school. I learned about Erdkinder (Montessori for ages 12-18) and was mesmerized by the idea of children working through the hormonal rollercoaster of adolescence by ‘working the land‘. Erdkinder seems to help children become independent, self reliant, and able to tackle practical, real world challenges. Also, I am kind of useless when it comes to practical life skills and want to make sure my children are capable of changing their own car batteries, replacing stems on a faucet, or building a mini pop-up library for their neighborhood (yep, this is on my bucket list… for my children to implement, of course).

In 2009, at DCPS’ invitation, I worked on a team of teachers/parents/principal to submit a proposal to DCPS (April, 2009) which described the vision behind Montessori expansion (which was met w/ disappointing silence). In 2011, a more detailed proposal (again, at DCPS’ request) around Erdkinder was developed and submitted to DCPS (thanks to a lot of hard work by Superparent Susan) elaborating on the middle school piece.  Sadly, early summer of 2011 DCPS announced that they did not have enough information on how Montessori middle school would work out. At the time, it made sense. DCPS was supporting the move of the Montessori school to a new building, new teachers (and a new a new team, not to mention, 40 new families)  – this was going to be a huge effort. And it was.

If this were a “How Montessori Learned to Fly” blog, I would get into what it took to move the program on the part of parents, teachers, the principals and incredibly committed staff from DCPS’ central office (Claudia and Anthony are particularly notable). Even with this intensely collaborative effort, things were all but smooth.  When the doors opened in August 2011, we (parents) discovered that while classrooms had been beautifully renovated, they were not adequately equipped with materials. The classrooms of the four new teachers looked barren those first months and we (parents/educators) found ourselves writing letters to DCPS begging for additional funding, and digging into our own pockets to furnish our children’s classrooms, the library and more. I honestly don’t know where things went wrong on this front, but at the end of the day, it was clear that the program had not been adequately resourced. I did wonder whether it was a conscious decision on the part of the school or DCPS to rely on parents to make up the difference. While DCPS did come through with some additional funding, I certainly never envisioned being expected to buy or raise funds for materials (the equivalent of what would be considered textbooks in a traditional school) or to furnish our then barren library.

Suffice to say that it made for a tumultous opening year. Add on the reality of kinks to be worked out when bringing a new team together in a new space, many members of our community did not stick it out. Three of the four new teachers did not return for a second year and many families also bailed. Pretty grim, no? Not really. Not for my family. My children’s teachers stayed put and my kids had a terrific experience (and continue to thrive). At the end of the day, the school really is amazing and warts and all, I know my children are getting a world class education in a supportive environment. We’re all really happy, but knowing it would come to an end, I resolved to look at existing middle school options and leave Montessori behind after elementary.

Funny thing about resolve… as it turns out, the Erdkinder conversation is not dead. In fact, my children’s principal has kicked off this school year energized about pursuing expanding Montessori to middle school and a survey has been floated to families to get a sense of commitment from parents. The results have not been made public, but the anecdotal consensus is that families of younger children are gung ho and families of older children are hesitant (much the way things were when we surveyed parents about this in 2009). In the context of my quest for a middle school, Erdkinder has become the elephant in the room (or the pink tower in the room).

What do I think? I’m supportive of the program and believe Erdkinder will be an incredible opportunity for the school and for DCPS to break new ground in urban education. This program is also receiving a lot of attention from the North American Montessori Teachers Association, which could mean for even greater visibility for the school and good stuff for DCPS. On the ‘good for kids’ front, thinking back to Eliot-Hine Principal Young’s advice on what to look for in middle schools, I was struck by what she said about looking at “Students’ relationships with adults… (who are) Caring, don’t overreact, constantly looking for ways to communicate”. I look at the teachers in my children’s school and see this quality very clearly. If this translates to the middle school environment, then it certainly meets one of my key requirements.

That said, I personally don’t have the stomach for breaking ground myself or for subjecting my family to another adventure, especially since DC’s education system is adventure enough. If the implementation of the Ward 6 Middle School Initiative is any indication, I also don’t have much confidence that the program would receive adequate support from DCPS on the implementation front. Add to this the reality of proposed closures, including five or so middle schools, I can’t imagine DCPS willing to invest the political capital to make Erdkinder happen without a lot of heavy lifting by parents.  Whatever the end result, I hope decisions are made quickly. Our school has been in limbo vis a vis middle school for too many years, and it would be nice to see the elementary teachers and the administration get on board with supporting children in transitioning to their destination school, regardless of what that school is. It would also be nice to see families staying through 5th grade benefitting from Montessori another year, and because they have a good middle school option to look forward to. (But note, this ‘scarcity of 5th graders’ issue is not unique to my children’s school).

So sadly, all things considered, I don’t think Erdkinder is in my son’s future. BUT… I will keep my eye on it for my daughter… So goodbye, elephant!

**this post has been edited to make up for poor judgement on my part, as it occurred to me that in the original version, my ‘honest’ was not ‘fair’ nor ‘respectful’.

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