Winn Elementary in Northeast Austin launched the city's first Montessori program housed at a public school this month. The program is an attempt by the Austin Independent School District to attract more students to a school with declining enrollment.
In the past five years, Winn has lost more than 100 students. What's happening at the school mirrors the enrollment decline across the district. To reverse the trend, AISD has modified many of its schools over the years, creating magnet schools or early college programs. Winn's Montessori pre-K is the latest in that effort, but it also came as a request from the community.
“It does make sense to have it here at Winn, because Winn had a declining enrollment," says Jacquie Porter, director of early education for AISD. "This was one of the ways that we not only could we accommodate a parent request, but we could also increase enrollment.”
The Montessori program at Winn is free to all 3- and 4-year-olds who qualify for state-funded pre-K and discounted for other pre-K families. Right now, it’s available only at the pre-K level, but each year Winn will add another grade level until the entire school is Montessori.
In the first few weeks of its inaugural school year, there is already widespread interest in the program.
“This school has also had several transfer requests from all over the district," Porter says. "There are parents from out of district who are driving to bring their kids here for this program.”
Around 100 kids are enrolled, just shy of the total capacity it can handle.
What makes Montessori so attractive?
The Montessori method allows students to choose their own activities throughout the day, with the teacher rarely giving group instruction. In one of the classes for 3-to-5-year-olds, there is a designated area teachers call "practical life." It includes real dishes, cleaning supplies like towels and brooms, and sets of zippers and buttons for the kids to play with.
Five-year-old Gianna plays with one set of materials where kids spoon dried beans from one bowl to another.
"That has little, little beans," she says as she carefully transfers the beans. "But you just play with them and that other one is for pouring on the next."
While it looks like a basic skill the child is learning, this activity is also building a foundation for academics.
"It’s more than just that," says Katie Kitchens, the Montessori specialist at Winn. "Everything here is in direct preparation for reading and writing. So, they move the beans from left to right in order to prepare their eyes for reading, and for writing they use the spoon in a specific way which helps them build that dexterity and strength."
This approach to learning is what drew Micaela Murphy to transfer her daughter to Winn. She previously paid to send her daughter to a Montessori school and was excited to have a public option.
"I hope that more schools are able to open up in Austin to provide this to students everywhere," Murphy says. "I hope [Montessori] stops being a privilege for certain areas, and it starts being normal and common so students can really have hands on with the curriculum."