Leah Hanany was first exposed to Montessori as a young child, when she briefly attended a Montessori school in Austin. It was something she wanted for her own daughters, but she couldn’t afford to enroll them in one of El Paso’s few private Montessori schools.

This May, Hanany visited two public Montessori campuses in the Dallas Independent School District with the goal of bringing that method of education to El Paso students — regardless of their ability to pay. The El Paso Independent School District trustee has found an ally in that vision in Diana Sayavedra, who Hanany helped hire late last year to run the district.

Sayavedra is working to open El Paso County’s first public Montessori school by the start of the 2023-24 school year — one of her first major initiatives as superintendent.

It’s a quick timeline, but Sayavedra and members of the school board believe more specialty campuses, particularly at the elementary level, are needed to bring families to EPISD, which has struggled with years of declining enrollment.

“In this day and age, families have become more cognizant about what their childrens’ needs are, and in many cases, the traditional public school doesn’t necessarily provide the room and the space for their child’s needs to be met 100% of the time,” Sayavedra said. “So I think choice is important.”

Italian physician Maria Montessori developed the secular Montessori method of education in the early 1900s. It emphasizes self-directed, hands-on learning and is “adamantly and radically child-centered,” said Sara Suchman, executive director of the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector.

Walking into a Montessori classroom for the youngest learners, you won’t see rows of desks or student artwork on the walls. Instead, students of mixed ages are spread out around the natural-colored room, some sitting on the floor while others are at child-sized tables. They’re all working at their own pace on an activity of their choosing, such as using “manipulatives,” like number-counting boards, or engaging in a practical task like pouring water into a cup. The classroom environment is calm, orderly and quiet.

“I really appreciated how the kids were moving around … I also loved how the curriculum is very self-directed,” said EPISD Trustee Daniel Call, who recalled his own struggle to sit still at a desk as a young student. He joined Hanany and Sayavedra on their Dallas visit, which was his first time in a Montessori classroom.

Public Montessori students are taught the same grade-level standards as those in a traditional public school classroom — and in Texas, they take the same yearly state academic tests beginning in the third grade.

Montessori can work for students with learning or behavioral differences, such as dyslexia or attention-deficit disorder, according to the American Montessori Society. When San Antonio ISD opened its first Montessori campus in 2017, a tenth of the school’s students received special education services, a larger-than-usual share.

More Texas districts offer public Montessori

Dallas ISD was an early adopter of public Montessori, opening its first two schools in the early 1990s, according to district spokesperson Nina Lakhiani. Today, it has six Montessori schools.

About a dozen other Texas districts offer Montessori, according to data compiled by the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector. These include Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Odessa and Marfa.

Though public Montessori has grown in popularity over the past two decades — which Suchman attributes to increased parent interest in personalized, self-paced education — Montessori still largely exists in the private sphere. Just a fifth of the country’s Montessori schools are public, according to the center’s data.

The few Montessori schools in El Paso are private, and tuition can run in the thousands of dollars. Mountain West Montessori in West El Paso, for example, charges $8,050 to $8,625 annually for pre-kindergarten through fifth grade students, according to its website. The county’s median annual household income was about $48,300, according to 2020 Census data.

“I see this as being something that’s going to draw more students into our district because we are doing things that are truly innovative, that are truly research-based, that are going to be beneficial for children all throughout their lives,” Hanany said.

EPISD is banking on that interest as a way to stabilize enrollment. In the last 10 years, its enrollment has shrunk by more than 12,000 students due to a combination of factors, including students leaving for neighboring districts or charters. It anticipates enrolling about 47,700 students this upcoming year, according to budget documents.

Because much of state education funding is tied to attendance, EPISD has lost millions of dollars in state revenue, which has caused it to go in the red. Last month, trustees adopted the 2022-23 general fund budget, which included a $4 million deficit. The deficit could grow to as large as $37.5 million in the coming years if spending isn’t cut and revenues don’t go up.

EPISD has long focused on expanding “choice programming” at the high school level, Sayavedra said, pointing to early college high schools that allow students to earn both a diploma and an associate’s degree, and career-focused magnet academies.

She wants to bring that choice to the elementary level.

And she isn’t alone: the Socorro Independent School District is converting two elementary campuses into specialized academies that will open this fall.

One academy is focused on fine arts, offering dance, music, theater and art classes, while the other centers around science, technology, engineering, arts and math, or STEAM, education. Both are modeled after schools that SISD Superintendent Nate Carman, who like Sayavedra is also in his first year of the job, launched in his former district.

Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa observes a Prestonwood Montessori School primary school classroom on Aug. 16, 2021. (Courtesy of Dallas ISD)

Sayavedra said she’s most interested in Montessori given its success in Dallas and San Antonio ISDs, whose Montessori schools have drawn waitlists, as well as the short- and long-term benefits associated with the model.

Studies have shown that public early childhood Montessori reduced “achievement gaps” across income levels and boosted academic achievement and school enjoyment. And a study found that Montessori students generally perform better on standardized tests than their peers even though testing isn’t a focus of the curriculum.

“For me, quality is just as important as choice,” Sayavedra said. “I don’t want a bunch of bells and whistles out there to say, ‘El Paso (ISD) has all this stuff out here.’ I want to make sure that if we’re going to offer something, that we’re delivering the quality that our children deserve.”

That quality is important, said Suchman, of the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector.

“There’s a real temptation in a district to do it piecemeal — we’re going to do Montessori but we’re still going to use the district reading program,” she said. “The more fully implemented it is, the better the outcomes.”

Montessori classroom startup costs expected to be high

Within the next year, Sayavedra, her team and trustees will have a number of decisions to make as they prepare to launch a Montessori school by August 2023. That includes where the school will be housed, whether it will be English only or dual language, how many students it will initially enroll, and whether enrollment will be by a lottery system or if preference will be given to neighborhood students.

Sayavedra said her goal is to “create enrollment that reflects the demographics of the students that we serve.”

Teachers will also need to be hired or certified in the Montessori method, a training that typically takes 15 to 18 months, Suchman said.

There will also be financial considerations to be made.

Dallas ISD was unable to provide estimates of the costs associated with starting a public Montessori school. On top of teacher certification, these can include classroom renovations, and purchasing Montessori-specific materials and furniture.

“One thing we learned in Dallas is that it is pretty expensive” to start a public Montessori school, Call said.

EPISD could potentially use COVID-19 relief dollars to cover some of the costs, Sayavedra said.

Call said he’s committed to finding room in the budget to make Montessori a reality.

“Because if it’s a success, it’s going to pull kids back into the districts or keep kids from leaving the district,” he said. “It could definitely be an investment on the front end that pays off financially for our district in the long-run and more than pays for the startup costs.”

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014.