Bianca Tanis teaches a combined kindergarten-first grade special education class in the Hudson Valley in New York. She is on the board of New York State Allies for Public Education, the group leading the campaign against high-stakes testing and privatization in the state.

She writes:

I had the opportunity to spend the day visiting a public Montessori school in Kingston yesterday. I have been considering this approach in my classroom and was able to tour the school along with my principal and one of our ENL teachers. I have not been this inspired in a long time.

Kingston is considered a small city school district and George Washington Elementary School is one of seven elementary schools in the Kingston City School district. Over 80% of the students receive free and reduced lunch, 17% are English Language Learners, and 26% are students with disabilities. When the principal first took over the school, they had 2,500 discipline referrals per year. They are not down to a handful and attendance has gone up exponentially. The lobby has couches for parents sit in and the principal’s dog roams the halls and often comforts anxious or upset students. The tables in the cafeteria have flowers on them and there is a library in the corner. The walls are covered with photographs of the students laughing and playing and student artwork. They are swapping out bench-style tables and replaced them with round,family style tables so that the students can converse with each other.

In every classroom students were engaged, working purposefully on self-selected tasks that are based on NYS curriculum. In the upper elementary classrooms each student has an individual work plan for their “independent period” of what tasks they must complete but within that period, they are free to work at their own pace and in the order they choose. During this independent period, teachers pull small groups or 3 to 4 students for lessons. Many of the classes are multi-age and students complete whole class science and social studies projects together. We saw older students helping younger students and children taking ownership over their learning. The teachers seemed relaxed, enthusiastic and HAPPY.

In the combined Pre-K-Kindergarten rooms the classes were very large, but you would never know it. The students were independently engaged in “tasks” and when they needed to speak with the teacher who was talking to me, the kids waited patiently and calmly, asking each other for help and then solving the issue themselves and walking away. If you work with 4 and 5 year olds, you know how amazing this is. The noise level was a productive hum…not silence, but not the cacophony you would expect from almost thirty 4 and 5 year olds. The children were independently drawing, making words with letter tiles, working on fine motor skills, counting beads, and pouring beans back and forth between two jars, etc.

There are about 320 students. The school has several inclusion classes, two self-contained special education classes and a dual language program. This a school that welcomes ALL children and provides them with a truly child-centered education. Their discipline policy is best described as a restorative justice model that does not focus on rewards, incentives, or punishments, believing that intrinsic motivation works. It was AMAZING.

These schools exists and are proof of what is possible when we look beyond test scores and look at what really matters. I just wanted to share because I think we can all use some good news 🙂