For Francis W. Parker Montessori School 56, winning the competitive Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI) grant means transformation is coming.

Academically, the school has struggled recently, and the COVID-19 pandemic did little to help. This caused the school to fall into CSI status this year — which means it should seek help to improve its performance to better serve students.

Not one to sugarcoat the situation, Principal Christine Rembert said, “it means at the state level, we are a failing school.”

Part of CSI status is funding, beginning with a $50,000 grant the school used to hire a “technical partner”— an agency that can help them identify areas where they’re falling short, adjust their methodologies, and get to the root causes of the school’s struggles.

They chose Equitable Education Solutions, an established partner that helped them identify areas of growth and places of strength.

“It’s just been an awesome experience to work with people who really could help us to get at what our root causes were and begin to consider how we would address those,” said Rembert.

Within this self-reflection, there was an additional opportunity. CSI schools can also apply for a competitive grant the state awards to schools to create a plan that will identify and address improvement areas. This means $200,000 in funding for a school that provides a solid, comprehensive plan to address their shortfalls.

So, they got busy writing the grant and, with the help of their technical partner, Francis W. Parker earned the award.

Winning the CSI grant doesn’t mean luxurious upgrades to the school, though. It means strengthening core values and skills for faculty and staff, staying up on the most current methods of providing instruction, and handling challenges with students.

“The things we are addressing in our grants are in continuing education for our staff, especially around intrinsic bias; strengthening our assessment; Montessori training; and strengthening our core instruction,” said Rembert.

In the areas of assessment, it was clear that additional training was needed to properly integrate Montessori principles with the district’s core curricula.

  • This is the first year the school is using the district’s Houghton Mifflin Harcourt language arts curriculum, and the grant allows for better training for teachers to get to know the curriculum.
  • Additionally, the Eureka math curriculum creates challenges for the school to align it with the more specialized Montessori requirements. But the grant is helping with that, too.

All teachers at Francis W. Parker will become Montessori certified, thanks to the CSI grant.

Montessori training focuses on hands-on learning, based on the tenet that, “The hand is the vehicle to the mind,” by using methods that include working with physical objects and giving students instruction that is “brain aligned,” which means a more intuitive method of learning.

“That’s a significant amount of training — 24 months, almost to the master’s level — to get fully Montessori certified,” said Rembert. “It’s not like going to one-week seminars. You’re in class every week.”

Being able to tackle intrinsic bias falls in step with the district’s overall Racial Equity Board Policy and Black Lives Matter Resolution.

As a concept, intrinsic bias training helps teachers deal with their own preconceived notions about their students, both as part of race equity training and in dealing with children in general.

For example, if a teacher is having trouble connecting with a student, or if the student acts out or speaks out of turn frequently, teachers may label that student as “belligerent” or “difficult.” But by re-examining those biases against the student, teachers can come to a more effective way to reach them, creating a better connection with the student and a more effective method of teaching.

“When a teacher looks at a student as belligerent or uncooperative, it might be that the child’s learning style or call-and-response style is something that you haven’t considered, and if there were some shifts, the child might be more receptive to what’s happening in her classroom,” said Rembert.

Some of this training will occur during the year, but much will have to be completed during the summer, when there is more time for the intensive training.

For Rembert and the staff at Francis W. Parker, the CSI grant doesn’t represent failure. Instead, they consider it an opportunity to succeed.

“For us, it’s all about student achievement. We needed to get real with the fact that many of our students were not achieving. We could have chosen to cry in our coffee and lament and say it’s because of this or that, but we really have said, ‘No, this is about us changing,’” said Rembert. “It has been a rallying cry for us in a way that I have never seen here before. And I’m so proud of that, of the hard work that it takes to get it right.”