The Virginia Coffee House, permanent housing for former residents of Lydia’s House and named after Cincinnati Civil Rights activist Virginia Coffey, sits above Azalea Montessori.
How do you bring an affordable Montessori education to communities that historically haven’t had access to it?
It’s a question at the heart of Wildflower, and one that innovative Teacher Leaders grapple with regularly. Through the years, Wildflower schools have addressed the tension by embracing strategies such as city and state-subsidized tuition vouchers, creating tuition-free public charter schools, and pursuing school district partnerships. But recently, various teachers across the network have unlocked a piece of the puzzle that they hope will pave the way for an even greater number of students to access a Wildflower education. They are co-locating their schools in the epicenters of the communities that need them most: affordable housing complexes, shelters for women and children, and transitional housing.
Creating deep and lasting partnerships with existing organizations in a community isn’t new for Wildflower. As Teacher Leaders have sourced buildings for their microschools in the past, they have followed a common Montessori practice of co-locating with houses of worship, as is the case for Marigold and Allium, both of which are located inside churches in Massachusetts.
The new co-location partnerships Teacher Leaders have forged with various providers of affordable housing are the sort of exciting and mutually beneficial relationships that will help the network make Wildflower schools more accessible to all families. In each partnership, the Wildflower school rents space from a housing nonprofit at a below-market rate, and enrollment is prioritized for children who live there. Taking advantage of the subsidized rent allows higher salaries for the teachers and, in schools with tuition, more affordable fees for enrolled families.
“It’s really meaningful to everyone involved; we’re forming partnerships with organizations who know and have been serving their communities for many years,” said Ali Scholes, a Wildflower Foundation partner spearheading efforts to grow more co-location partnerships. “Part of why families are so excited to send their children to co-located schools is because of the schools’ explicit commitment to centering families who have been historically marginalized.”
Jeana Olszewski, founding Teacher Leader at Azalea in Norwood, Ohio, said co-locating with apartments for former residents of the women’s and children’s shelter Lydia’s House has created a warm community. Jeana tells the story of two single mothers who likely would not have met if not for Azalea, but whose bonds have grown outside the classroom. One woman is a former resident of Lydia’s house, and the other lives in a neighboring community, and was drawn to Azalea. From playdates to sleepovers to helping navigate each other’s work schedules, they have both grown to appreciate the sense of family the small school provides.
“Our school community feels like a really organic and genuine expression of the Wildflower principles. Our students love each other and they’re so close; it’s like having 25 cousins
together,” Jeana said. “We’re physically located in this urban neighborhood, there’s always a bit of a ruckus outside, but we also have a children’s garden across the street with chickens and a bunny. When we’re walking down the street to the several nearby parks, people who live in the neighborhood are looking for us. They’re always waving.”
Norwood, a city outside Cincinnati, is full of Montessori schools of all types: private, public, faith-based. But Jeana, a longtime local educator and a veteran Montessori teacher and parent, said that before Azalea opened its doors, Montessori schools may have been plentiful, but a Montessori education was anything but accessible.
“We have all this Montessori in the city, but it’s often the wealthy, privileged kids who get it,” she said. “Even the public Montessori schools are mostly located in the nicer neighborhoods.”
Karla Vasquez-Torres, a Teacher Leader at Mariposa in northern Puerto Rico, agrees. Her school is located inside a shelter for women and children called Hogar Ruth. The exact location is not public in order to protect the safety of their students, who all either live at the shelter or have parents who work there. A Wildflower veteran, Karla previously ran Flamboyan, a Montessori school in partnership with the local public school district.
“In Puerto Rico, Montessori is an elite privilege. But the moment I became certified, I knew I wanted to help bring Montessori education to kids who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it. When I saw and lived the results of what Wildflower can be, I knew I had to open this up to more kids.”
Because the majority of the students at Mariposa have experienced violence in their home, Karla said they come to school with little agency and are often scared to jump in and participate in lessons.
“These kids come in without a voice…but here, they find a place where they can talk and someone will listen to and respect them. They learn that violence is not the solution,” she said. “When you start seeing those kids being owners of their space, it’s just beautiful. They find a place where they can be themselves and be free.”
While the Teacher Leaders say there is no question that a Wildflower education is particularly meaningful and effective for the students they serve, there are plenty of operational benefits to partnering with these housing organizations, many of which are longtime nonprofits and highly respected in their communities.
When the pandemic hit in Spring 2020, leaders of the nonprofit Lydia’s House, which runs the transitional housing where Azalea is located, came to Jeana and offered to waive their rent for six months while they figured out how to operate school during an uncertain time.
“Partnering with a nonprofit like that, they will have your back,” Jeana said.
Karla from Mariposa said that Hogar Ruth, the 30-year-old women’s shelter where their school is located, has been instrumental in helping them identify and access grant funding they might not have otherwise known about.
Claire Ricker, Director of Real Estate at Coalition for a Better Acre (CBA), said their partnership with Wildflower has been a critical piece of their efforts to transform the Haverhill neighborhood.
“If you’re trying to improve lives, you have to think about changing many elements of a single neighborhood, in a systematic way, at a steady pace. With this in mind we felt that a partnership with Wildflower Schools was crucial to meeting our goals of not only providing safe, stable affordable housing, but also to use our physical space to further invigorate the neighborhood.”
Teacher Leader Janet Begin has been laying the groundwork for these co-location partnerships for years. Her own school, Marigold, is co-located within a Haverhill, Massachusetts church, but Janet, who believes strongly in using Montessori for social justice, knew there was even more potential. A lightbulb first went on three years ago after meeting with the housing nonprofit CBA and realizing their mission and Wildflower’s were closely aligned. Later, a parent at Marigold, Nicole Randall, expressed interest in Montessori education, and Janet tucked it away. Finally, the stars aligned this year after Nicole, now a Montessori-trained teacher with several years as an educator under her belt, agreed to start Snowdrop, a toddler program located in the same complex as some of CBA’s affordable housing. At least 25 percent of the available seats at Snowdrop will be reserved for residents of the housing complex, and many will receive state education vouchers to help pay a portion of their tuition.
“Being a teacher, you plant these seeds because it’s just what you do, and then years later you start to see it all pay off,” Janet said. “There’s just a lot of people pushing for this and we’re all really excited to be here.”
With Snowdrop’s opening, Wildflower leaders like Ali are hoping that the model becomes a pilot for future collaborations. Currently, the Wildflower Foundation is in the process of making connections with other affordable housing nonprofits to support new Teacher Leaders who want to pursue similar opportunities.
While the natural diversity that results from these co-location partnerships is undoubtedly positive for the students, Nicole Randall, the Teacher Leader who will run Snowdrop starting in September, said she is also grateful for the opportunity it will give her.
“I’m excited for myself, to learn and to grow,” she said. “ I’m really excited about the exchange of ideas.”
CO-LOCATED WILDFLOWER SCHOOLS
Location: Norwood, Ohio
Co-location: Permanent housing for former guests of Lydia’s House, a shelter for women and children
Opened in: September 2019
Location: Haverhill, Massachusetts
Co-location: Coalition for a Better Acre, a nonprofit that provides affordable housing
Opened in: Anticipated opening September 2021
Location: Haverhill, Massachusetts
Partnership: Trinity Episcopal Church
Opened in: 2015
Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Partnership: Just-a-Start, an affordable housing nonprofit
Opened in: Fall 2018
Location: San Jose, California
Partnership: El Rancho Verde, an affordable housing community located in northeast San Jose
Opened in: February 2021
Location: Puerto Rico
Partnership: Hogar Ruth, a shelter for women and children
Opened in: January 2021
Students at Azalea wear rain suits while participating in the school’s outdoor program, “Azalea Outdoors.”