Suder Montessori, a new magnet school, is drawing the attention of parents on the Near West Side and throughout the city.
In three classrooms, 80 students ages 3 to 5 are learning how to discover the world on their own terms, guided by teachers who were trained in Maria Montessori’s acclaimed educational model.
“I’ve been happy with it,” says Julie Pomerleau, mother of a 4-year-old boy enrolled at Suder. “I really like this teacher. I’ve observed her in action. So far, the principal seems like she’s in charge and has the wherewithal to look out for the school.”
The principal, Deborah Hammond-Watts, arrived with rave reviews from Poe Classical on the city’s Southeast Side and knew the Montessori model from her experiences as a parent. Suder received everything from a fresh coat of paint to brightly colored, tactile materials used in all Montessori classrooms. One top district official has a child enrolled there.
The new school is just the kind that parents want, school officials say, and that the district intends to open more of under Renaissance 2010, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s initiative to create 100 new schools to replace those that are failing.
But some educators and grassroots leaders still question why the old Suder—a struggling school that had gained notoriety from Alexander Kotlowitz’s bestseller “There Are No Children Here” and had begun to make progress—was closed. They also doubt that the reopened school is serving the poorest children in the neighborhood, those most in need of high-quality education programs.
Suder’s former local school council chair, Angela Ware, who works as a community advocate in the Miles Square Health Center directly across the street from the school, has that feeling every day.
“To see those cars pulling up and bringing children in, and your kids, who once attended Suder, cannot attend, it’s very disappointing,” she says.
Some parents thought the old Suder “was working fine,” says Hammond-Watts. “I tried to inform them that [the new school] is, indeed, going to serve their younger children. Some of them understood; some of them were not happy.”
Children who attended the old kindergarten through 8th-grade school were effectively shut out when it closed in June 2004. The new Suder admitted only 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds, and plans to expand each year to admit children up to 13. (Montessori classrooms are grouped by age, not grade levels.) The district school closings policy guarantees slots for displaced students in reopened schools, but only if the new school offers the same academic program and grade levels.
Every child enrolled in the old school was poor, African-American and lived within the neighborhood attendance boundaries.
The new Suder is more diverse: the poverty rate is 61 percent, black students comprise 75 percent of the student body (15 percent are Latino and 8 percent are white), and only 58 percent of all students live within a mile and a half of the school.
Yet one community organizer says only four of Suder’s current students live in nearby Henry Horner Homes, the public housing development where the old school drew most of its students. By the time Suder hosted an open house for area residents in August 2004, says community organizer LaShunda Gonzalez, the school already had received 80 applications. “I’m assuming they did the word-of-mouth thing,” she says.
Besides holding a community forum, the new Suder was featured on the Chicago Public Schools’ website and advertised in the Chicago Defender and Chicago Journal newspapers, according to district officials. Fliers were also distributed to area residences, churches and social service agencies.
In the end, the effort generated some 200 applications, a lot from neighborhood people, but not as many from Horner residents, explains Michelle Frazier, a project manager with the CPS Magnet Schools Assistance Program. “We tried to get the information out as widely as possible,” she says.
Yet, the district “didn’t actually get out and talk to people” and encourage them to apply, says Crystal Palmer, president of Horner’s local advisory council. “They just stuck fliers in the doors. People didn’t know what it was.”
This year, Hammond-Watts says applications to fill next year’s 58 seats went out early, and by the December deadline more than 200 had applied. She does not know the geographic breakdown, however. The admission lottery was held in early March and parents of accepted students will be notified later in the month. They will have to formally accept slots by April 17, a citywide deadline for magnet schools.
Meanwhile, public housing continues to be replaced by new developments in the gentrifying community. Before Suder closed, its enrollment had dwindled to 277; the school’s capacity is 400.
Formerly known as the Near West Side, the neighborhood itself was rechristened West Haven. “It’s a hot property,” says Cathy Elgazar, a Herbert Elementary guidance counselor who worked at Suder before it closed. The district “wanted to reopen it as a better school, which they did.”
According to CPS, the genesis of Suder Montessori was a three-year, $8.9 million federal grant that the district received in 2004 to open five magnet schools across the district. The West Side has relatively few magnet schools and Suder’s facility was suitable and available, says Shenita Johnson, deputy director of new schools development for CPS.
A proposal to open a Montessori school was presented to an advisory council charged to help select a new program for Suder. Three other proposals were pitched as well. “Initially, the [advisory council] did not recommend any,” Johnson acknowledges.
Members of the council, however, say their input was ignored. “It was clear to us that they had already selected the proposal,” says activist Gonzalez.
Businessman and community leader Earnest Gates says he saw where things were heading and resigned from the council. “I told them in a nice way—well, in a not so nice way—that I was not going to participate in a sham.”
Others remain miffed that all former Suder students were left out of the new program. “It didn’t look like there was much consideration for the neighborhood,” Hallagan says.
Frazier explains that it would have been difficult to introduce Montessori practices to older children who were used to a traditional academic approach where teachers tell them what to do. “That would be a difficult transition,” she says. “The best practice is to open it at the younger grade levels.”
Ed Finkel is a Chicago-based writer. E-mail him at email@example.com.