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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Investment in the schools is down: Gifted and ESL are on the chopping block, and Montessori may follow.

Peter Downs wrote last week in the St. Louis Schools Watch that the Missouri legislature has decided to cut funding for gifted and English as a second language instruction.

Rather than responding argumentatively, I would like to share some stories from my life.

Several weeks ago, my parents came to visit us, to see our newly purchased house and help us work on it. My mom had seen the place before, but it was my dad's first time seeing our house. He was very proud of us. He told us how happy he was to see that the neighborhood is starting to do better, because when he lived and worked here in the past, it was not. He told us about how he lived in an apartment on 14th Street as a kid. The apartment had no bathtub. When they needed to bathe, they would take water from the kitchen faucet to fill up a metal basin which sat in the kitchen. Once, after a hard day of working out in the heat in the junkyard, his father took him to the public bath house on Saint Louis Avenue to shower, because they knew the kitchen basin would not be enough. Dad commented that as a kid he knew they didn't have a lot of money, but when he remembers things like that, he knows that they were really, really poor. After a quiet pause, he said "Everything that has happened in my life happened because of the gifted program. College. Jobs. Everything happened because someone labelled me a smart kid and put me in gifted."

I now live in the neighborhood where my dad used to live when he was a little kid, going through extreme poverty. I live exactly one block from Ames School, where he later worked as a teacher after completing college thanks to the background he got in the gifted program. Sitting here, close to these two sites, I am almost frozen with fear over what the SLPS will be like without gifted, and what that will mean for all the kids who would have gotten that important extra educational push.

Peter Downs notes that the statewide cutting of gifted and ESL mimics cuts in the St. Louis Public Schools. What really stands out to me is that at Euclid and Washington Montessori Schools, fourth and fifth grade students were taken off the Montessori program this year. They were reorganized as standard classrooms.

I went to Washington Montessori from kindergarten to third grade, and I went to Euclid Montessori from fourth to fifth grade. Though I faced many typical SLPS nightmares there (ranging from small things like bad, nutritionless lunchroom food to big things like a friend ending up in a coma due to construction workers' negligence, and a bunch of us getting shot at on the playground during gym), overall the education I got there was outstanding. My first to third grade teacher, Mrs. Saputo, and my fourth to fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Debaun, were probably the best teachers I've had in my entire life. The Montessori method of using concrete objects to express abstract ideas was wonderful. To this day, when I'm trying to remember what part of speech a word is, I picture the big red circle for verbs, the giant black triangle for nouns, and so on. When I am tutoring a kid in complex multiplication problems, I help myself understand how to break down the problem by picturing the beads we used in my Montessori classes to represent large numbers.

But Montessori went beyond regular math and grammar lessons. Because of its fluid structure, teachers were able to give us individual instruction based on our own needs. When I was in second grade, Mrs. Saputo was able to give troubled readers their own lesson for their level, give a different lesson to average readers, and let dorky little me make up my own spelling words (Because of her class, I was one of six winners of the city spelling bee in fourth grade.). Outside of the traditional curriculum, we had other great lessons. Mrs. Debaun brought in a botanist, and my class worked with him to restore and plant small raised flowerbeds around the school (which previously had been solidly overgrown with weeds). She had people bring in live chickens to our class. Presenters came in and burned incense and taught us about Native American culture. Mrs. Debaun herself told us about her vacation to China and taught us to make Chinese papercuts. We visited a local home for babies born to crack-addicted mothers, and stitched together a quilt to donate to the home. We weren't just learning about the three R's, but about the larger world beyond ourselves. We learned very tangibly how to plant a seed and nurture it into a vegetable, how to sew something and share it--pure Montessori.

Also significant is that because of the structure of the classrom, we children were able to learn to do our work on our own, which is a very, very important lesson. We were also encouraged to sit and work together, which I partially credit for the fact that my best friend from third grade and I are still close to this day.

I still learn by the Montessori method. I remain less interested in sitting in a lecture hall than in going out and working in my community. I don't have a college degree yet, but from my Montessorian tendencies, I am learning how to curate a film series, tutor at-risk children, and research the landscape of my city.

I wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn't gotten to attend gifted and if I hadn't gotten to take Montessori classes. I wonder what my dad's life would have been like if he hadn't gotten to attend gifted. Where would he be now? Would I exist? Would my dad have a job at all, let alone one that paid the bills? Would he still be scraping by, eating biscuits and lard as he did when he was a kid? I really, really don't want to think about the terrible, horribly grim answers to these questions, but all across St. Louis and the state of Missouri, students who would have been in the gifted program or who would have taken Montessori classes will have to spend their lives finding out.
From the SLS Watch: "Superintendent Creg Williams has agreed to meet with Montessori parents on November 30, at 5:30 p.m. to discuss the future of the Euclid and Washington Montessori schools. " The meeting will be informal. It will be at Washington Montessori, which is located at 1130 North Euclid Avenue. The 94 Page, 95 Kingshighway, and 97 Delmar bus routes can get you there.


Umar Lee said...

I cant believe ESL is on the chopping block.

Anonymous said...

If African-American parents sued, and we then tried voluntary interdistrict deseg, maybe New American parents should sue for ESL. If not working class immigrants challenging the likely loss of ESL in court, perhaps an advocacy organization, like the International Institute should go to bat or at least try finding some pro bono attorneys.

Anonymous said...

Clair, I went to Euclid Montessori from k-3! Werid.

Joe said...

I thought ESL was Federal funds. MO can't cut that completely, right?? There was a threat to cut ESL at the Federal level earlier this year, but I thought that was averted.

I student-taught environmental science for a year at Euclid Montessori while I was in high school, through the Botanical Garden's Eco-Act program. I think that was 1995-96. I taught a 4th/5th grade class that was great!

The SLPS Montessori program has had problems for the past several years, with many assertions they weren't following the Montessori method. While I don't care whether they're a "member" school, because that seems ridiculously expensive, they should at least teach by the Montessori method if that's what they advertise.

Oh, and the #15 Hodiamont passes really close by those schools, too. I think there's a stop at Euclid and the right-of-way.

I'm also a product of the SLPS gifted pull-out programs, at both Mallinckrodt ABI elementary and Mason ILC middle. Those programs were great for me, and really challenged me in ways the regular classrooms didn't always.

The State of Mo has threatened cuts to gifted before, but parents always revolted. Hopefully that will happen again.

Claire Nowak-Boyd said...

According to the SLS Watch, at least Missouri state level funding for gifted and ESL is being cut, thanks to Blunt-a-roony and the MO Legislature. Hopefully, federal funding will remain? ESL funding is something I should educate myself more about, but from what I understand, at least state level cuts are occurring.

Besides the discrimination-based reasons that ESL is profoundly disturbing, it bothers me that there is going to be one less reason for immigrants to move to St. Louis, with more crappily funded (or non-existent???) ESL programs. Many of the older American cities that have experienced significant rebirths in recent years have done so because of immigration from outside the US. If it was not for Mexican and other Latino immigration to Chicago and NYC (not to mention a heckuva lot of California cities), they would be closer to St. Louis's point in the urban regrowth process. Sociologists and other academics have found that Latino immigration "makes up for" population loss in these cities. But don't expect that to happen around here anytime soon--Mexican immigration typically follows jobs (which we ain't got), and now if ESL goes.... Yep.

There is something particularly troubling about cutting classes needed by those whose parents are by definition least able to speak up against it.

Nate: Weird indeed! Do you remember who your teachers were? I had Ms. Cotton (recently retired), Mrs. Saputo (now teaching preschool at Dewey), and Mrs. Debaun (passed away after I graduated, sadly). It was strange to return to Washington. I remember the building being absolutely cavernous, but it's really pretty small.

Joe: I missed you by one year at Euclid. Weird.

At the meeting, I found out that exactly what you said--they've been on a diluted version of Montessori for a few years now. Montessori teacher training was cut off at some point, and with the introduction of the Open Court curriculum and the removal of TAs from classrooms, teachers find it very difficult to successfully administer the Montessori program. Really, how is one teacher supposed to handle a mixed-grade classroom with no assistant but three grade levels worth of Open Court curriculum that she's supposed to teach all at once? It's absurd! Creg Williams claims he will return the schools to proper Montessori, and he better, because like parents of gifted students, Montessori parents are feisty.