Twenty years after the Denver school board decided to move a high-achieving and racially integrated elementary Montessori magnet program out of a low-income northeast Denver neighborhood, feelings still run high on both sides of the issue.
The story of the Mitchell Montessori program provides a telling case study of the tension that exists between a desire to integrate schools on the one hand and community pressures to allow students in a largely segregated city to attend schools within walking distance of their homes on the other.
Mitchell Montessori’s former director, as well as families who sent their kids to the school still lament the beloved program’s move to southwest Denver in 1997. Although the Montessori program continues to operate at Denison Elementary School to this day, it is less integrated than the Mitchell program was, and decidedly less high-profile.
Former Mitchell families point to the fact that the elementary school program for neighborhood children that replaced the racially and socio-economically mixed magnet program struggled from the outset, and finally declined to the point that the district shuttered the school in 2008. The Montessori program drew students from all corners of the city.
Former district and elected officials insist they had no choice but to move the program back in 1997, because as busing ended and DPS returned to neighborhood schools, hundreds of neighborhood children needed a place close to home to go to school. They also say that the Montessori program lacked strong support from residents of the immediate neighborhood.
Attracting white families
Mitchell’s Montessori program debuted in 1986 as an integration strategy after court-ordered busing failed to bring enough white students from southwest Denver to Mitchell to integrate the school. Mitchell is located on the border dividing the Cole and Whittier neighborhoods, an area where crime and gang violence were endemic two decades ago.
In 1985, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Matsch found three northeast Denver schools out of compliance with a federal desegregation order. One of those was Mitchell. He ordered Denver Public Schools to find a way to integrate those schools.
That year, Martha Urioste, Mitchell’s first-year principal, entered what was clearly a neglected and dysfunctional school.
“When I walked into the … building (for the first time), I passed weeds in the front yard and graffiti on the school wall,” Urioste wrote in a paper she delivered last year at a national Montessori conference. “It was obvious that Mitchell Elementary School was in decline. It was then that I realized that I had been assigned to a very challenging situation.”
Urioste wasn’t familiar with Montessori until she attended a Montessori training that year at the suggestion of a friend, and the experience was life-changing. Montessori is a self-directed education model from the early 20th century, originally designed for low-income children in Italy, but popular in this country with many middle-class and affluent families.
“I thought to myself that if this Montessori lesson could give me such an experience in 20 minutes, what could it do for small Hispanic children in a Montessori classroom?” Urioste wrote in her 2014 paper.
Although Montessori materials and teacher training are expensive by public school standards, Urioste convinced DPS that the program would attract a diverse group of families.
She was right. From its first year, Mitchell Montessori succeeded in drawing white families from southeast and northwest Denver, as well as middle-class black and Hispanic families who had not sent their children to Mitchell when it was a traditional neighborhood school.
Part of Mitchell’s attraction was that its program began at age three and ran through sixth grade. And unlike other DPS schools, preschool and full-day kindergarten were tuition-free. Also, DPS ran buses door-to-door, from families’ homes to the school.
A history of achievement
By the mid-1990s, Mitchell had a racially balanced student population. In 1995, the busing court order was lifted, 22 percent of its students were black, 38 percent white and 38 percent Hispanic. And standardized test scores were among the highest in the district. Back then, DPS used the Iowa Test of Basic Skills to assess it students.
In elementary school, only second and fifth-graders were tested. Mitchell second-graders tested in the 60th percentile nationally, and fifth-graders in the 64th percentile. Those were the second highest scores among DPS elementary schools that year.
No detailed test score data still exists from that long ago, so it’s not possible to break out achievement at Mitchell by race or socioeconomic status.
Wayne Eckerling, who was DPS’ director of planning at the time, said he doesn’t believe Mitchell’s low-income students of color performed much better than they did in other district schools.
“My recollection is that you had the same basic patterns of achievement there as everywhere else,” he said.
There were significant number of middle-class black and Hispanic students at Mitchell, Eckerling said, and their achievement was high.
“Educating the child of an African-American city councilman is hardly the same as a kid who comes from third-generation poverty,” Eckerling said.
Urioste and former Mitchell parents dispute that.
“When you integrate kids, scores go up,” Urioste said. “After nine years of Montessori, virtually every kid in the school was at grade level or above.”
A study in contrasts
Jennifer Jones has lived in the Whittier neighborhood for 35 years, within walking distance of Mitchell.
Her two younger children attended the Montessori program at Mitchell. The younger of the two, Philip, finished his Montessori education after the program moved to Denison. Philip attended Colorado Academy, an exclusive private school in southwest Denver, for grades seven through 12. Madolyn attended the private St. Mary’s Academy for seventh grade before moving to the Denver School of the Arts and then East High School.
“Where in DPS could we have sent our kids for middle school after the experience at Mitchell?” Jones said. “Denver middle schools back then were the armpit of education.”
Both children subsequently attended the University of Southern California, Madolyn on a nearly full-ride scholarship. Today, Madolyn holds a master’s degree in planning, and Philip a bachelor’s in communications. Both are working professionals in their fields.
Two older children who attended other DPS schools missed out on the top-notch education Mitchell Montessori provided, Jones said. “While the two of them had positive academic experiences, they were no comparison to the education Madolyn and Philip had with Montessori,” she said.
“I wish Montessori had been available for all of our children. Unfortunately, it was not and our (older) children who attended regular DPS made positive strides given what was available for them.
“My younger kids got exposed at Mitchell to something outside their community. They got the opportunity to meet and make friends with and spend the night at the homes of kids who ski, who travel to Europe for vacations.”
“Conversely, kids at Colorado Academy had the opportunity to meet Phillip (he and Madolyn are mixed race), and that exchange was valuable to them, because my kids are urban kids.”
A tough and acrimonious decision
Urioste and Jones knew the Montessori program at Mitchell was doomed as soon as the school board decided to return to neighborhood schools citywide.
“It was a given. We fought and we lost,” Urioste said.
Then-school board member Laura Lefkowits recalls the Mitchell decision as one of the most difficult ones the board made as it reconfigured the district for the post-busing era.
“It was a no-win situation; there was nothing we could have done that would have satisfied everyone,” she said.
“Philosophically, people were right who asked why take a high-performing school out of a low-income neighborhood. But we couldn’t justify leaving that magnet there and displacing neighborhood kids.”
What frustrated families, and led to some heated exchanges at school board meetings, was the fact that no organized opposition arose to keeping the program at Mitchell. Ardent support among Montessori families for keeping the program at Mitchell fell on deaf ears among board members and DPS staff.
“There wasn’t a neighborhood constituency who wanted us out of there,” Jones said. “We walked those blocks. We went door to door. We talked to those parents.”
Mayor Wellington Webb and his wife Wilma arrived, unexpected, at a January 1996 school board meeting to plead with the board to keep the Montessori program at Mitchell. “It was their anniversary, God bless them,” Jones said.
But Montessori advocates made one key strategic blunder: Most of the families who showed up to plead the program’s case were white.
“Parents who had flexible work schedules attended the meetings,” Jones said. “But that parent group had a white face. We shot ourselves in the foot.”
That’s how Eckerling, the former DPS official, remembers it as well.
“It was an ugly fight, and the Montessori parents (at the meetings) were white, middle class people. It wasn’t the Mitchell neighborhood parents. So it was never a very compelling case they put forward.”
Eckerling said the parents also erred by being aggressive to the point of being rude to staff and board members. “If they had taken a different approach maybe we could have found a compromise,” he said.
The Montessori program that was born at Mitchell lives on at Denison. The program remains racially integrated, but less so than it was at Mitchell. Roughly two-thirds of its students are Hispanic and one-third white. The black population is small. Just over 60 percent of its students qualify for subsidized school lunches, a proxy for poverty. More than 25 percent of Denison students are English language learners.
Test scores place Denison in the ‘green’ category, the second highest on a five-point scale on DPS’ School Performance Framework. But achievement gaps between low-income and non-low-income students are wide, as are gaps between white students and students of color.
DPS now offers Montessori programs at several schools throughout the district and at all grade levels, pre-kindergarten through high school.
Still, something irreplaceable was lost when the program moved out of northeast Denver, Mitchell Montessori parent and neighborhood resident Jones said.
“The heartbreak was so real, losing Mitchell,” she said. “It was a source of pride in that community.”
This story is part of Rocky Mountain PBS’ ongoing project coverage, Race in Colorado. Standing in the Gap examines race in public education in the state. To learn more, click here and watch the four-part documentary series on rmpbs.org.