In 2003 Hiawatha Education Foundation, the vision of then-state Sen. Robert Kierlin of Winona, was offering grants for groups to start Montessori schools that would serve ar-risk low-income children. Kierlin, head of the Fastenal Corp. who served on the Senate’s Early Childhood Committee, believed in the power of Montessori and early childhood education to change the lives of young children. At that time, research done by Art Rolnick and Rob Grunewald of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis found society’s investment in early childhood education for low-income children pays back tenfold in social benefits.
I applied for this grant with help from my colleagues. Our new school, Bright Water Montessori, was the first school to receive the Hiawatha Grant. We quickly gathered a startup board of directors, located a site, and networked to locate staff and resources. Our first mission statement: Celebrating diversity, respect and passion for learning in an environment that nurtures and prepares the whole child for life. I was committed as founder and director to an intentionally diverse school in order to mirror the neighborhood and offer a rich educational experience. Our board was committed to give our students the best education possible – a Montessori experience.
Why is diversity important? Children are best served when they have a school community that mirrors their changing world. Children are smarter when they are exposed to a variety of experiences. We started as a diverse group knowing our families would most trust us if our staff looked like our students. We worked hard to assure we had diverse qualified staff invested in our mission and who believed in the power of our children to succeed. Then we brought our mission to families.
Having staff and families who are from different economic, racial and family groups is not always easy. Assuring that all stakeholders are served takes work. And interpreting what respect means over different cultures takes hard discussions. We started with mutual respect about who each were. Constant work on diversity and discussion of equity called for rules of communication. When it all worked, it worked well. Bright Water continues to do hard work on equity. We will always require resources, consultation and commitment of all stakeholders to invest in a school that puts Montessori education at the core of our intentional school, our beloved community.
Ready for a complex society
I contend that children who interact with diverse students in classrooms and in the broad environment will be more motivated and better able to participate in a complex society. Research gives credit to what we do. In a study of research on diversity, “How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Benefit all Students” (Wells, et all, Feb. 2016) various studies come to the following conclusions:
- Diversity makes us smarter: Exposure to students from different backgrounds offer varied ideas and lend exposure that leads to improved cognitive skills, critical thinking and problem solving. (Piaget, 1971, 1975/85)
- Students can better navigate the challenges of adult society if they attend diverse schools: Ninety-six percent of major employers say it’s “important” that employees be “comfortable working with colleagues, customers, and clients from diverse cultural backgrounds.”
- Diversity challenges negative stereotyping: When children have relationships across groups they are less likely to stereotype and more likely to care for those different from themselves.
- Diversity enhances creativity: Diversity actually encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision-making and problem solving. (Scientific American, 2014)
Better for all
At a time when many of our schools are highly segregated, we see students benefiting from a racially, socially and economically diverse school environment. As Paul Wellstone said, “We all do better when we all do better.” When we work together we watch out for each other. We applaud each other’s success. We realize that our future is intrinsically tied up with the future of each child, each family in our group, in our world.
Our new mission statement for our preschool and charter elementary: Bright Water provides and excellent and equitable Montessori education in North Minneapolis to an intentionally diverse community of students. Our vision: Our students will develop the character strengths, social and emotional skills, creativity, passion for learning and college-prep academic capabilities that will enable them to lead lives of joy and purpose.
Ambitious, but part of all doing better.
Ann Luce is an educator, consultant and founder/board member of Bright Water Montessori.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at email@example.com.)