Every time a parent asks me “how will I know if it’s a good Montessori school?” I rejoice. I know that these are parents who understand that Montessori is not a trademarked name, and that anyone can open a Montessori school, a Montessori toy shop, or even a Montessori appliance warehouse. I know that these are parents who want to learn. Most importantly, I know that these are parents who want a quality education for their children, and are willing to do the work it takes to find it.
It is not always easy to find the right school. It can be awfully confusing, for someone new to the Montessori world and all its letter organizations. How is a parent who is just getting started with the basics of Montessori philosophy to understand the fine differences in philosophy between the various accrediting bodies? What is a parent to do when there are no accredited schools in the area? And is accreditation really a guarantee of quality?
Accreditation, more than anything, means that a school meets a certain set of criteria, and has the resources (human and otherwise) to undergo the accreditation process. Schools that are not accredited are not necessarily lacking - they simply have chosen not to undergo the process. When visiting a school, it may lend some insight to ask why they chose to be accredited by a particular organization, or why they chose not to seek accreditation.
So how do you know if it’s a good Montessori school? Here are some of the things I look for in a school to assess whether it is a quality Montessori program:
- mixed age classrooms in accordance with Montessori's planes of development. (birth to walking, walking to 18 months, 18 months to 3 years, 3-6 years, 6-9 and 9-12 or 6-12, 12-15, 15-18).
- teachers who are certified to teach the age level they work with (or have certification for another age and are in the process of training
- a calm, peaceful atmosphere
- a commitment to the development of inner discipline through non-behavioural techniques (ie, no stars, reward charts, time-outs or any other kind of reward or punishment)
- a commitment to the uninterrupted 3-hour work period
- a full set of materials in good shape
- mostly natural materials in all areas of the school (if there's a ton of plastic, even in the hallways or the office, It's not the right place for me - and this is very personal, it doesn't mean it won't be a good program overall)
- solid transition routines, to start the school year and on a daily basis (How do they manage moving from the work period to lunch? What is the morning greeting/drop-off routine? Is there a transition in September for new students?)
- walls that are almost bare at adult-level, but beautifully and sparsely decorated at child-level.
- older children who are confident, calm, polite, sociable and able to carry on a conversation with you as a visiting parent.
Most Montessori schools will offer an observation as part of the enrollment process. I strongly recommend taking the opportunity to sit in a working classroom. It is the single best way of getting to know a school, teacher, and classroom.
I also recommend asking to talk to the teachers, to get a sense of who they are, and whether they are passionate and respectful when speaking about their students. You can also ask to talk to current and past parents, and to older students and alumni. Speaking with the older students is invaluable - they reflect in their very beings what the school brings forth in them. Look at the oldest students in every school you visit and ask yourself “is this what I want my child to be like at that age?” That is probably the single most important indicator of whether a school offers a quality educational experience, and whether it will be a good fit for your family.
For further reading, I highly recommend the website of the Canadian Council of Montessori Administrators (one of those accrediting organizations), in particular this article on Choosing a Montessori School and this one titled What is Authentic Montessori.
What it always comes down to, though, is this: Does it feel like a place you and your child will be comfortable? That's what you want, more than anything!
Andrea Lulka has spent her whole life in and around Montessori, the last ten years more formally than the rest. She is a certified 3-6 teacher holding an MEd. in Montessori Integrative Learning, now working towards 12-18 certification.
Andrea also has experience in various capacities with every age group from Toddler through to Middle School as well as with parent education and school administration. By far her toughest and proudest role in the Montessori community is that of mother to a Montessori boy.