by Letty Rising
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Rachel Kimboko is the Executive Director of Stakeholder Engagement at DC Wildflower Public Charter School. She holds an AMI elementary diploma and has worked in Montessori public and private settings, both as a teacher and as a school leader.
Letty: Tell me about your role at Wildflower.
Rachel: We are DC wildflower public charter school, chartered in April 2021. I came on board on August 21 as the Executive director. My job was to build the infrastructure, and as you can imagine, as a brand new charter school, we didn’t have the capacity to take any money or hire anyone, but we knew who our first set of teacher leaders would be.
I spent the first 6-9 months of my job building the infrastructure of the charter with support from a number of people. The Office of State Superintendent for Education and our authorizer, the DC Charter School Board, did a great job supporting me. We were the only new charter in 2021, and no one will get a new charter until 2023 at best. We had a lot of attention (for better or worse!) because we were the only ones who started when we did!
Wildflower Schools are meant to be community-embedded, street-front schools, where the teachers are the ones running the school. They are the ones who design it and decide what the emphasis will be. Clearly, they are doing good Montessori, but beyond that, what they will do is up to them.
We want to put ourselves in front of communities that haven’t traditionally thought about Montessori, letting parents know it can be an excellent environment for their children. Ebony Marshman and Zani Dalili-Ortique are the two teacher leaders who started The River Seed school, which is our first campus. My role is to work hand in hand to support them as they develop their schools. They’ve done the recruitment, designed the logo, come up with the school name, and built the website. Everything you would imagine that school leaders would be doing, as well as thinking of how they would engage with families as teachers. How we build relationships with families, and how and where we will look for these students.
They settled on ward 7, and if you know anything about DC, you know that ward 7 is one of the historically disenfranchised communities. Our neighborhood in particular hasn’t seen a lot of development. There are strong traditional schools and strong charter schools, but there were no Montessori schools in our area. And certainly not Montessori at this scale, which is just one or two classrooms!
We have a primary classroom, and we will have the elementary classroom and that’s it. I get the fun of doing this process every year with a pair or maybe two pairs of teacher leaders who are ready to start designing and making real the school they have been dreaming of, wherever in the city they decide to settle. Right now we are thinking of being in ward 7 and ward 8, as well as 2 communities that have also been rapidly gentrifying but under-resourced, ward 4 and ward 5. These areas have a large Latinx community, and lower-income folk, so those are other areas we are interested in. I have 2 more pairs of folks who are thinking of ward 5.
My job is to support the teacher leaders in doing this great work and to make sure our authorizers are happy, And that we are meeting all of the necessary things to keep the charter and keep the funding coming to them. It’s about making this idea of highly personalized micro schools happen in the public sector and be more accessible to people who can’t pay for a private school, at a neighborhood level.
We are tiny, we started with 18 students, and more than half of them are within a mile or two of school. It’s just the best. They are very local, and the two teacher leaders have done a great job of building relationships with community organizations that are nearby. We have a plot at a community garden, we are a part of a CSA with an org called Dreaming Out Loud that focuses on black farmers. We are partnered with an aftercare provider that is also a black-owned business and is really excited to work with us. As much as we can we are investing in the community where we are, using local contractors, and building relationships that will build the community as well.
Letty: I love that! It sounds like the model is as such that there will generally be 2 teacher partners, one primary and one elementary. Is that right?
Rachel: Not necessarily! With our next pair of teacher leaders, it looks like we might have 2 primary classrooms. One of the exciting things about this job is that I don’t necessarily know what we’re getting next! It looks like the next 2 sets will be primary classrooms, which means we better get some elementary classes too because we want to make sure those kids coming out of the primary classroom can stay in Montessori. Ebony and Zani built what I think is a sweet partnership, where they can grow their own elementary class, and they will have a relationship with Zani since they started as 3 or 4-year-olds, so it isn’t as if they are transitioning to a brand new teacher.
Letty: So the assistant teacher is already elementary trained?
Letty: So you eventually want to grow to 6-8 classrooms? What if you end up with 500 people on your waiting list, and everyone is like “Please make more of these?”
Rachel: The nice thing about DC, is we have this 5-year charter, and if we are successful by the end of 5 years (and I don’t anticipate that we won’t be, Wildflower is popular and our support system is going to make sure these teacher leaders are successful), we could theoretically go back and ask if there is space to do more classrooms. Or potentially we could ask the charter school board if we could expand our age range and try to do adolescent programs. I admit that this seems super appealing to me!
DC is so lucky because we have Capitol Hill Montessori which is a public school that is fully Montessori and goes through PreK-8th grade, so there is already an opportunity there. Then there is Sojourner Truth, which is a middle and high school, and they are just now going into high school, which is amazing. There are already two pathways, we just need to pay attention to what people are asking for. I do think there is a strong possibility that people will see it and recognize it is something they want to build or support.
Letty: I’m imagining that they see you as a support system for them to ensure they can be their best selves.
Rachel: Wildflower talks about circles of work, and if you can think of DC wildflower as a big circle, almost like a cell, and there are little structures within that structure. Our board has work that they do (and by the way, the best working relationship I’ve ever had with a board or as a board member. A lovely, really committed group of people, and a different way of being with us as a board). It’s hard, as each of us is unlearning our hierarchical ways of being. I think of us as being the little nucleus that we can rely on. I give a lot of advice, do a lot of coaching, and there’s lots of “Rachel what do you think about this situation?” My role is to try to not make a decision for them, but to provide a foil, a listening ear, more information or context I might have based on my experience so they can make the best possible decision.
By no means am I the only advice giver! I have a really well-experienced student support partner who brings special education experience as a teacher and also as a school leader. She has a really deep understanding of special education and children with special needs. Our operations person brings a lot of experience doing everything from on-campus operations across multiple campuses, to really digging in and understanding the enrollment process.
I got super lucky, but the three of us all provide some depth and grounding for the teacher leaders. I go to the Wildflower foundation to talk about how to balance the needs of a charter and also about the kinds of decisions that have to be made that would be different if they were 6 independent schools. There are some places where decision-making isn’t entirely free. If you meet your enrollment targets, you get funding to support your staff and your facility, which independent schools don’t necessarily get.
Letty: It seems like a lot of teachers would find this model appealing. Do you see this growing? Are people getting interested? Teachers are struggling with accountability measures that are getting so intense in public education, and many are feeling like they can’t practice Montessori as they know best.
Rachel: One thing I think is interesting that Ebony and Zani have said separately is that they now have gained some appreciation for the decisions that were made that they remember railing against when they were teachers at other schools. There are decisions administrators make that sometimes do not make sense to teachers because they don’t have the context. I appreciate when they say “Now I understand how that decision got made. I might not still agree with it, but I can see the trail of how the decision was made.”
Starting a Wildflower School is a great opportunity for people who want to do more than show up for work. You have to be willing to think deeply and to have a clear vision about what you want your learning environment to be like, what you want your relationship with families to be like.
If you are that person who is already thinking about teaching in that way, you are already meta about your teaching and your practice, and you can find someone you like to work with, and you think you have enough of your ideas in common and aligned, it’s an awesome opportunity. Regardless of whether you are able to do public or not, if you are able to do an independent Wildflower, it is such a lovely opportunity to have a tiny personalized Montessori.
Letty: What makes your work unique while also being aligned with Montessori principles and practices?
Rachel: When The Wildflower Foundation talks about how we are to be together, they situate adult relationships in this idea of Montessori: How do we give children the freedom to make choices? We often give them the context for the decision they will make, we give them the resources they need, we don’t expect them to make everything up, and we give them that first lesson that sparks interest, and we are responsive to their needs. That’s very much the way we are trying to be with each other as adults. We spend a lot of time building community, having the adult equivalent of a morning circle, and regular check-ins so that we make sure we know each other deeply. It’s a tiny team of 5, and we spend a lot of time getting to know each other.
We respect each other’s capabilities and differences. There’s never a question of someone not being capable, just a question of how much support you will need or want to get this done. This is often how this question is asked. You have this task to do, do you need help from me? If you do, what can I do? People have the opportunity to do something independently if they would like, or call on a friend and get some support if they need it. I love that, it’s such a great way to work.
I really appreciate being an advice giver and not a decider a lot of the time. It’s nice to provide information and know that it will just get used as that. I’m not saying I’m right, it’s about me sharing my experience and sharing what I know. If I feel strongly that a decision will be damaging I have the right to say that and push on it.
But most of the time it’s really just the opportunity to give advice, which involves taking a step back, and waiting until they ask. That’s super hard, to wait to be asked for advice. The ways I work with my team are different from what you might hear from a more traditional school leader. And so, I’m in the position of trying to balance that with the external expectation that I’m just going to make a decision, or if anything got decided if someone has a question they would ask me. I will tell them “well, I didn’t decide this” but I can go and find out more if you’d like.
Letty: Some of what you are talking about is related to working in a small school. I worked in a small school with just 2 classrooms for several years. You came from a large public school! Someone once told me that when you are starting something new, there is a lot of uncertainty but there is also a lot of freedom. They also said “From chaos comes order, but not without the cost of freedom.”
When you have a larger environment you need the policies and procedures, and all of that needs to be in place, but if you are smaller you can be more flexible. At the same time, I found myself being too flexible, and at one point thinking to myself “Maybe we do need to have regular meetings instead of relying on communicating with each other in passing, which is easy to fall into when you are a small two-room schoolhouse. There’s that need to be flexible and also that need to have those structures in place so that everyone knows what to expect.
Rachel: Yes, it’s important. What I think I would call it is making sure you have structures and procedures in place which support that flexibility. Have those weekly meetings, so if something comes up you don’t wait a month to talk about it. I don’t design the agenda, we design the agenda as a group. So if something is coming up for someone else, we prioritize together how we will work through our weekly agenda. Some information can be shared in written communication…we don’t have to talk about it in meetings. We can trust that we are reading those updates and know what is going on.
Letty: It sounds like everyone feels a pretty strong sense of ownership.
Rachel: I would say so, as well as a sense of accountability to each other. We can have the freedom and ability to make our own decisions and make our own path within our scope of work because we trust each other to do the same. And to be thinking about where my scope of work impacts your scope of work, I should talk about it, because I might be impacting your day. I will say it has not been without any error. This summer we weren’t meeting as regularly, and then we got into early August and we were like…goodness, we need to get back to our weekly meeting! We were going so fast as we were trying to get open, and decisions were being made without discussions being explicit. We knew that weekly meetings had to happen because we experienced what it was like without them.
Letty: What would you say are some of the joys and challenges of implementing Montessori in a public school setting?
Rachel: I really appreciate the diversity of our student body. Interestingly, all of our children are Black and Brown, but they have very diverse backgrounds. Even within that visual similarity, there is a diversity of economic background, diversity of ethnicity, diversity of language, diversity in terms of familiarity with Montessori, and children with a wide range of different abilities. It’s a really diverse group of students and families. That is a thing that is more likely to be fostered by a lottery system in a diverse city.
We decided to start really small, with 18 students, and as you can imagine, in the public sector, we had lots of pushback. Ebony and Zani were really clear about wanting to start with a small group so that they can pour into those 18 students so that when getting new students the next year those returning students would be so strong. And I tell you, they were right. It feels so much better than when we get swaths of children who are new to Montessori. None of them have Montessori experience (except maybe 1 or 2). The small number allows personal attention to individual needs and their family’s individual needs, which isn’t necessarily a public sector thing, but it is something I learned from experience.
These are lessons we learned from watching how it was done in other places. It’s great to be able to start small and slow, and also to be able to have a diverse group of students. Parents are really grateful, and recognize this opportunity that their children are getting. This is the great thing about Montessori in the public sector…folks that end up with you and learn about Montessori are really so happy and recognize what they are getting and are really happy about it.
Letty: What does a successful Montessori school look like to you, and what do public Montessori schools need in order to experience success?
Rachel: One of the things I know is true, is that if we want Montessori to be more appealing to Black and Brown families, we also need educators who are diverse. We need to figure out how to do Montessori in the spirit of the methodology in a way that keeps pace with our modern time. I don’t mean walking away from Montessori, what I mean is thinking of the intent of the work or a lesson, or the reason behind the thing we are doing, and whether or not there might be a way to get at that “thing” in a way that resonates more directly with the children we have directly in front of us.
A simple example, in primary, is shoe polishing. Shoe polishing is great, and there may be families who still polish shoes. If the intention is to build hand strength, follow multi-step directions, and take care of shoes…hey, there are a lot of sneakerheads out there! Maybe a kid should learn to clean a sneaker because they are more likely to be wearing a sneaker that needs to be cleaned than wearing a shoe that needs to be polished. Could you substitute that more modern work for what might be a little more old-fashioned or unfamiliar work and still be meeting the same need? This is a super simple example. When I talk with public Montessorians, they think more this way. How do I keep the spirit and intention of this, and be aware that the children in front of me are not the children the lessons are written for?
Letty: It reminds me of something I say often…most of us are in alignment with the “what.” We want them to develop fine motor coordination and concentration. And then, there is the how.
Rachel: The what and the WHY. The “how” doesn’t have to be so prescribed.
I see interesting work happening at all levels…I was talking with a toddler teacher who is having that same thinking. How do I make these pieces of work, lessons, and materials more relevant for the toddlers in front of me? They don’t know what this thing is, they’ve never seen it before. Is there something I could substitute it with that they could recognize?
Letty: It’s not very practical life-ish if it’s not very practical in their life.
Rachel: Yeah, if it’s something they have never seen and will only see in their classroom, is it practical life? I’m here for all of those conversations. I think that’s really important.
We at Wildflower and my team in particular really believe that Montessori can be liberatory if it is done well. Because it frees your mind and creates this amazing relationship with learning, this thirst for knowledge and questioning in the best way, wanting to know more, knowing how to find out more about things, and knowing how to interact with others. That’s one of the things I appreciate the most about my Montessori kid, and I know you have Montessori kids!
Letty: Yes, and they know how to be in the regular world in a much easier way.
Rachel: They do, they are familiar with looking around at what is happening and finding their way.
Letty: Particularly if they were in Montessori elementary they learn how to negotiate, discuss, and collaborate, in that little petri dish known as the Montessori elementary community.
Letty: Do you have any ideas on how we can bring more BIPOC people into the classroom to become teachers?
Rachel: We need to do a better job at getting people into our classrooms and calling attention to the good things. If they have a more traditional orientation, they might say “this is chaos, this is crazy! What’s going on in here?” But if you let them sit and give them things to look for, they will start to see how amazing it is. They saw those kids work the entire problem out and no one intervened.
It’s not perfect, but if we give people opportunities to see the beauty of children in that way, they are often drawn to it. I think it feels better. It’s a great feeling when you are a Montessori teacher with children. That guiding rather than directing is just lovely. You are people together.
My daughter’s teacher often joked that she was “the queen of all she surveyed.” What she meant is that this is a microcosm, and in this community, I am a benevolent leader and am ultimately responsible for what happens in this classroom. There needs to be a healthy amount of that, but it feels different when the children are creators with you in that space.
I think a lot of folks that I really respect have been talking in the last year or two so much about co-creating the space for the children, and how important that is, and I think as well as adults. Co-creating with your assistant, your specialists, and special educators who are coming in, and really thinking about Montessori as a place where a group of adults is creating this environment where children can be successful.
I think Black and Brown people have been in roles that have been less respected in the Montessori classroom, and I think that has been hard. You don’t necessarily want to be a teacher if you’ve had a negative experience of a teacher not being respectful. You might not want to be in charge of that if it hasn’t been positive for you. There’s some of that acknowledgement that we have some hierarchy things we need to work out.
Letty: I think if we are not careful a Montessori classroom can be more hierarchical than a traditional classroom. Because of the very idea of choice in the classroom, the elementary environment in particular can augment bias if children are choosing who they are working with all the time and the teacher isn’t mindful of mixing them up or making sure they are having lessons with other people.
Rachel: The last bit of it is access. We need to find ways to make training more accessible. Money is one of the issues, but also there is time and cognitive load. Training isn’t easy. That’s not the way I ever had to learn. Even if you were successful in school, it is still an unusual way to learn for adults. And acknowledging that and putting some support around that and figuring out ways to make it more accessible will help, so that people won’t end up feeling that they aren’t being successful and not wanting to say anything, or not even enter because they have heard that it is hard, and they put themselves at risk.
Make sure there are really good resources for teachers. You have Coaching, reading, and watching videos, do you need a blog or a live person to ask questions to? Whatever is the thing that helps you the best. The more we build up different modalities for getting support for new teachers, the more we will keep people in the field.
Letty Rising has been involved in Montessori education for over 15 years. She holds a B.A. in Sociology, a California State Teaching Credential, and an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as a Homeschool Education Specialist, Montessori Elementary Teacher, School Director, Principal, Montessori Coordinator, and Consultant in several public and private Montessori school communities throughout the years. Letty currently supports schools around the world through professional development offerings, consulting, and mentoring.