August 10, 2018 Media

The Montessori School of Englewood: A Lever for Change

Six years ago, Principal Rita Nolan embarked on the biggest challenge of her two decades-long career in education: founding a school. Last spring, The Fund reported on Rita’s search for a long term home for her institution, The Montessori School of Englewood (TMSOE). Finally having a stable location has allowed Rita to turn her focus to empowering students by providing them great role models: their teachers.

“Adolescents need to activate,” Rita explains, “they need to be taken seriously by adults.” So, she ensures that the adults around her students − their teachers – have the tools to help them realize their power. Teachers at TMSOE “teach their students that they can make changes,” Rita articulates. But even reaching this stage can take a lot of work, as many students at TMSOE have never trusted the adults at their school before.

Rita knows this kind of “heavy lifting” is necessary to reach her goal of sustaining the Montessori model in a historically underserved community like Englewood. To help with this lift, Rita built the Chicago Montessori Residency (CMR). It is a training center that ultimately provides TMSOE with a “diverse group of teachers” who “embrace equity work,” she says. Rita also lists empowering teachers and giving them leadership opportunities as one of the most important things she has learned leading a school. Rita herself spent twenty years as public school teacher; she knows what it’s like to be on “the front lines.” It is clear to her that equipping teachers will help them best equip students.

At TMSOE, Rita has also placed special emphasis on building a team of teachers who have “the expertise and knowledge of the history of the community” they serve. Couple this with the will to stick to the school’s mission “even when at times [they] fail,” and it’s no wonder she has gathered a talented bunch. Rita feels it is a “huge privilege to be at ground zero” overseeing this teaching and learning that will give students the skills and confidence to support their community.

Rita is quick to point out that you can only pull one lever at a time though. She describes long-term success as a series of short-term gains, many of which are qualitative and don’t show up in a school’s testing data.

While Rita gives much of the credit to her teaching team, she too contributes countless hours. “What I’ve learned about bringing any kind of educational model into a community that isn’t your area of knowledge is you have to understand the community you’re working with and identify the needs of the specific children in your school,” she explains. Building trust with students and families and proving to them their history and voices would be heard was the first step to empowering students at TMSOE.

Rita is also confident that showing students “they do have power and access” is not the end game. She is looking forward to the “beginning of a revolution” and hopes to see “children and young adults demanding that they have equal rights and equal access and not being willing to accept what the system has done.”