How Did Milwaukee End Up With So Many Public Montessori Schools?

Apr 15, 2019

In many places across the United States, families looking for Montessori education turn to private schools. But Milwaukee is different. There are eight free, public Montessori schools in the district.

One of them is James Whitcomb Riley School on the south side. It’s Milwaukee’s newest public Montessori school, and the only dual language one.

Italian doctor Maria Montessori innovated the new educational approach in the early 1900s.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

On a recent morning, kindergarteners in Jessica Martín’s classroom worked independently or in pairs on exercises like sounding out letters and stacking wooden blocks by size. Martín moves between children to check on them and at times, guide them through a new activity.  

“The Montessori way is more independent, it’s structured but not how the traditional system is,” Martín explains.

Based on her observations of child development, Italian doctor Maria Montessori created this educational approach in the early 1900s. Montessori classrooms are multi-age and utilize hands-on, sensory activities for self-directed learning.

In Martin’s room at Riley School, 6-year-old Ronan Fay concentrates on a wooden board with numbered tiles.

“I’m gonna be putting all the numbers in order, like 10, 20, 30, 40, 50,” he explains.

Six-year-old Ronan Fay is a student at Riley Montessori School. His mother, Brenda Fay, sent us a Beats Me question about why Milwaukee has such a strong public Montessori presence.
Credit Emily R Files

Ronan was one of the first students at Riley when it opened in 2017. His mom, Brenda Fay, sent a question to our Beats Me series that led to this story:

“I had heard that MPS has the largest public Montessori program in the country. And I wonder if that was true,” Brenda Fay asked. “And why Milwaukee?”

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Phil Dosmann says Milwaukee does have the largest single-district public Montessori program in the U.S. Dosmann is director of the Wisconsin Montessori Association and a former MPS principal and teacher. 

“We have the largest public district Montessori program with almost 3,500 children,” he says. “States like South Carolina have more [Montessori public schools,] but they’re throughout the state.”

The next question is why. Retired Montessori teacher Michele Butz helps answer that.

“I believe it happened because of two innovative women, and of course, parents,” Butz says.

The two women were Hildegard Solzbacher and Grace Iacolucci. Solzbacher led one of Milwaukee’s first private Montessori schools. She helped spark interest among MPS board members and parents. That’s where Grace Iacolucci comes in. She was an MPS kindergarten specialist who helped launch a few Montessori pilot classrooms for kindergarteners.

“And after two years, parents were so excited by what they saw that they said, ‘Give us a school,’ ” Butz explains. “Then, simultaneously, the court order to desegregate came. So it was an opening.”

A federal judge ordered MPS to stop segregating students by race.

MacDowell was the first MPS Montessori school. It began as a magnet program to help the district achieve racial integration.
Credit Emily R Files / WUWM

To do that, the district relied on voluntary busing to specialty schools. MacDowell Montessori was one of them. It opened in 1976 — the same year as the desegregation order. Former MPS administrator Grace Iacolucci recounted the magnet program in an oral history interview recorded 20 years ago.

“By setting up magnet schools you drew people who were not going to be that concerned that their child was working with a black or white or Asian or Hispanic child,” Iacolucci said. “Now, Montessori was just one of specialties, we have other specialties too.”

Phil Dosmann says Milwaukee wasn’t the only city that used magnet Montessori schools to desegregate.

“The other public programs back in the late '70s and early '80s were Kansas City, Cincinnati, and Denver,” Dosmann says.

In Milwaukee, the Montessori program took root. It was so popular with families that the district gradually expanded its portfolio to eight schools, including one charter school. They are some of the most sought-after programs in the district.  

Kindergartners (ages 3-6) in Jessica Martín's classroom at Riley School.
Credit Emily R Files / WUWM

“Every year there are hundreds of students on the K3 and K4 waitlists that are waiting to get into the Montessori program,” says Maryland Avenue Montessori Principal Joe DiCarlo.

Partly because of the great demand, the MPS Board adopted its first Montessori strategic plan last month.

It calls for a district-wide Montessori coordinator and funding for teacher training. Principals say finding qualified teachers is one of Milwaukee’s biggest hurdles to grow its Montessori program in the future.

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