If you walk into Mrs. Garcia’s classroom at Montecito Community School in Phoenix, Arizona, you won’t see her standing in front of a board teaching her class the day’s lesson. Instead, you’ll see students spread out across the classroom, each exploring their own interests. One student works on a puzzle of the United States, trying to fit each state into its proper location, while two students use a magnet to pick up a container full of paper clips. One student, a self-described engineer, builds a bridge out of wooden blocks, while another gets one-on-one reading instruction with Mrs. Garcia. If this seems like kids are just doing what interests them—that’s because it is. Montecito Community School is a Montessori school.

In Montessori schools, students have a three-hour block daily to pick activities based on their natural interests. While traditional schools also allow students to explore their interests, teachers in those schools typically narrow their choices by predetermining what activities students will have available before the day starts. In Montessori schools, if students are interested in music, they can use tone bars to make a song. If they’re intrigued by math, they can use beads to create bracelets. They can read up on historical figures if they’re interested in history. The thought is that students are naturally curious and will learn on their own if they are doing something they’re interested in.

While the Montessori model may initially seem like a free-for-all compared to traditional schools, the method is more intentional than it may appear. As Jill Singh, Osborn School District preschool coordinator, likes to put it, the Montessori model takes a “freedom within limits” approach. At Montecito Community School, each day, students have the freedom to choose their own activities. Yet they are still required to avoid distracting behavior, respect each other’s space, and use classroom materials appropriately. This approach maintains a safe classroom while still allowing children to take control of their education.

And the Montessori model produces results.

A wooden case on wheels that contains an assortment of multicolored beads for educational use.
Beads are available for students to get a hands-on math lesson.

According to the National Institute of Health, children who attend Montessori schools have higher academic gains, better performance on creativity tasks, and a more positive perception of school than children who attend traditional public schools. This track record of success has helped Montessori models gain traction in the past few years. Currently, the United States has approximately 5,000 Montessori schools nationwide and it is expected that this number will grow at about 5 percent per year.

Yet, like most high-quality education programs in the United States, the Montessori model faces challenges of inequitable access. Of the 5,000 Montessori schools, about 4,500—or 90 percent—are private. Therefore, the large majority of U.S. Montessori schools fill the bulk of their seats with students of higher socioeconomic status whose families can afford to pay tuition.

The exclusive nature of U.S. Montessori schools as a whole marks a major departure from the model’s origins.

Origins of the Montessori Method and Its Use in the United States

Started by psychiatrist Maria Montessori in 1907, the first Montessori school opened in Italy in a poor, inner-city district of Rome. The students were 3 to 7 years old and were among the most underprivileged children in the city. With various hands-on materials available at their discretion, these students became eager to solve puzzles, learn culinary skills, and engage with the classroom materials Dr. Montessori designed. They developed a curiosity so deep that they essentially began teaching themselves.

Surprisingly, Dr. Montessori’s educational approach led some of Rome’s most underserved children to flourish, demonstrating remarkable concentration, attention, and self-discipline. As word spread of the “Montessori method” in Italy, the program gained popularity, eventually expanding to the United States and other countries.

But how has this model—with its origins rooted in equity for underprivileged students—become a program more often enrolled in by privileged kids in the United States? In part, this result is the product of the challenges of fitting the peculiarities of implementing Montessori programs into the standardization of American public education systems.

As it turns out, running a Montessori program requires significantly more funding, more administrative support and flexibility, and access to a pool of teachers with specialized Montessori training. In these regards, private schools have significant advantages over public schools when considering employing the Montessori model in their classrooms.

The challenges that public school systems face when considering adopting the Montessori model are not insurmountable, however. How can education leaders expand access to Montessori programming in the public education system? The experience at Montecito Community School—a public Montessori and Osborn School District’s first Montessori program—offers lessons to school districts and education advocates nationwide who are considering opening their own Montessori schools.

Montecito Community School: A Case Study

While many private schools have advantages over public ones when it comes to starting a Montessori program, the success of Montecito Community School shows that it is possible to overcome challenges regarding funding, administrative support, and teacher recruitment.

Funding: Osborn School District Sought Public Approval

Establishing Montessori schools can be a costly endeavor, given the substantial initial investment required for unique materials, furniture, and educational resources. At Montecito’s Montessori, each new classroom carries $65,000 to $75,000 in material startup costs. This initially high cost can be a challenge for public Montessori schools because, compared to their private school counterparts, they have limited access to flexible funding—particularly in those large amounts. Without funding streams such as endowments and high tuition fees that elite private schools typically have, public Montessori programs must depend on funding primarily from state and local governments and may struggle to acquire authentic Montessori resources and hands-on materials.

For this reason, school bonds and overrides can be crucial for public Montessori schools. What are school bonds and overrides? School bonds are investor-backed loans to districts repaid via local property taxes. School overrides allow a community to exceed certain tax limitations to secure additional funding for their local schools. In Arizona, like most states, a public school district may call for an election of a bond or override to receive additional funding. Then, it is up to the public to vote on whether or not to approve the school override.

Since its 2021 opening, Montecito has benefited and been able to get the resources needed for startup through bonds and overrides. In Phoenix’s most recent election, the Osborn School District proposed a $100 million bond initiative, with a portion of the $100 million going to Montecito to pay for the additional materials the school needs to implement an effective Montessori. The plan also included extending the existing school override—allocating funds to update Montecito Community School’s facilities as it continues to grow. After a robust public campaign from the Osborn Education Association, nearly 75 percent of the public voted to approve the measure.

Take-home lesson: When the funding isn’t readily available through usual public funding streams, bonds and overrides can be necessary for the growth of public Montessori schools.

A blue and red yard sign in support for an Osborn Elementary School District bond and override.
Yard sign in support for an Osborn Elementary School District bond and override.

Administrative Support: A Superintendent Who Recognizes the Value of Montessori

In private Montessori schools, the school’s administration and board members have typically joined the organization with an understanding of the Montessori method’s goals. In public education, however, many district-level staff may be unfamiliar with Montessori education, as there are only 500 Montessori public schools among the roughly 98,000 public schools in the United States. This lack of familiarity can make it difficult to garner and sustain support from district staff for a faithful Montessori implementation.

It is crucial to have administrators who understand the hurdles and the work that needs to go into operating a successful public Montessori program. Luckily, in the Osborn School District, the superintendent, Dr. Michael Robert, was a Montessori school teacher earlier in his career. As a practitioner, “He recognized the potential of what a public Montessori could bring, not only to our district, but really the children of our community,” said Jill Singh.

Although few districts can boast a former Montessori teacher as superintendent, it is critical to have district-level officials who understand the model’s benefits, the work it takes to implement it, and the vision for what it could be.

Take-home lesson: Montessori advocates should take the time to sell district leaders on the potential of Montessori. Such efforts can consist of individual conversations, group conversations, and attending and speaking at board meetings, if allowed. By cultivating a network of allies within the district that champions the Montessori model, getting the funding and resources necessary for Montessori will be smoother.

Teacher Recruitment: Turning Traditional Classroom Teachers to Montessori Teachers

Montessori schools require Montessori educators with specialized training and certification. For this reason, public schools may face difficulties finding and hiring certified Montessori teachers, which can lead to longer hiring searches that yield limited choices. These difficulties may be especially true for new and growing Montessori schools, as they must add more teachers each year as their model grows by grade level.

Instead of looking externally to find certified Montessori teachers, Montecito Community School has looked internally to find teachers willing and motivated to become Montessori certified. At the district level, some preschool teachers expressed interest in teaching at the Montessori school. Instead of limiting their opportunity out of fear of creating a vacancy in another model, Montecito and the Osborn School District were willing to guide traditionally certified teachers who wanted to try Montessori. After all, it is easier to replace a traditional classroom teacher than to find a Montessori teacher. Once Montecito identifies candidates, they undergo an online certification process and, once certified, can teach the Montessori model with professional development and coaches along the way to guide them.

Take-home lesson: The search for Montessori teachers begins on the schools’ home turf. Local leaders can start by looking internally for qualified teachers interested in becoming Montessori certified before looking outside for teachers who are already Montessori certified. Critically, to pursue this in-district labor market strategy, leaders will need to locate or build flexible, affordable pathways to provide Montessori training for interested candidates.

Two students at Montecito explore their creativity in the “Mud Kitchen” during recess.
Students at Montecito explore their creativity in the “Mud Kitchen” during recess.

Additional Resource Strategies for Montessori Programs

The challenges and strategies discussed above are just some of the most common ones that a public Montessori model will face and how Montecito Community School navigated them. Each public Montessori school will face challenges depending on the context of where they are opening and the buy-in from the surrounding community. It is up to local education leaders to navigate these contexts.

For example, Arizona struggles to fund schooling for children ages 3 and 4 adequately. Since the Montessori model is typically started at these ages, Montecito had to find a way to fund that part of their program. Montecito decided to charge tuition—as most Arizona preschools do—to offset some of the program costs. While this still can be a barrier to enrollment by some low-income families, Montecito’s tuition is about $4,500 per year for three-year-olds and $6,500 per year for four-year-olds—roughly half the price the school says that their private Montessori preschool counterparts charge. Additionally, the school allows students to join Montessori after ages 3 and 4, when the school becomes tuition-free.

Each situation will be unique, of course, and public schools opening Montessori in places with other early education contexts may find this challenge easier to surmount. In general, however, opening public Montessori programs will be easier in states and municipalities that fund public universal pre-K programs. Additionally, the federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program is a possible revenue stream for Montessori programs.

When public schools successfully navigate these hurdles and figure out how to establish a Montessori program, the result of the program is a school for low-income children that promotes self-directed exploration, helping to unlock their full potential and bridge educational disparities.

Returning Montessori to Its Roots

On an early fall day at Montecito, Mrs. Robert’s mixed-age lower elementary (ages 6–9) class explored the school’s courtyard. Their assignment for the day was to piece together the story of The One and Only Ivan by arranging various parts of the story in the correct order. Each student was responsible for illustrating a unique part of the story on paper and lining up in the correct order. Once the illustrations were in the correct order, they collectively recreated the story on the ground using chalk, forming a visual story at their feet.

Students outside of a school building drawing on a cement pathway.
Montecito students bring The One and Only Ivan to life in the courtyard.

As the students began transferring their drawings from paper to the ground, their excitement and appreciation filled the air. One student, Vivian, caught up in the moment, exclaimed, “I’m so glad I went to school today!” Two of her classmates cheerfully echoed her: “Me too!”

What more could any school hope to hear about their new pedagogical model? It’s time to return Montessori to its equitable roots—by making it a widely accessible feature of the U.S. public education system.