The main Detroit school district has reassured anxious parents who were worried about the future of the district’s Montessori program that the program is here to stay — and is actually likely to expand.

The district sees the popular program as a way to attract families that might otherwise reject its schools, but the program’s lower class sizes and its need for specialized materials, like wooden blocks and beads, have created a delicate situation for district leaders in a city where many schools are facing intensive challenges.

Despite that, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti assured Montessori parents gathered for a meeting last week that he’s committed to the program, even as some changes could be coming.

“I am an advocate of Montessori programs,” Vitti told parents, noting that he’d supported them as a school leader in Florida. “I’ve expanded them in Miami and as superintendent in Jacksonville. No one here needs to convince me of the benefits of Montessori.”

That said, he told parents he’s considering some changes to the program. Among them:

The program might be consolidated into fewer schools.

Montessori is currently offered in 14 classrooms at six schools — Spain, Maybury, Edison, Chrysler, Palmer Park and Vernor elementary schools. Vitti told parents at a meeting last week that the one-classroom program at Chrysler, which is in the Lafayette Park neighborhood, could move into Spain, which is about two miles away in the midtown neighborhood.

The program at Maybury, which is in southwest Detroit, could move to Palmer Park Preparatory Academy. [Palmer Park closed recently because of concerns that a water leak in the building had created dangerous mold conditions. Students, including those in Montessori classrooms, were moved to another building for the rest of the school year. The district said Tuesday that the mold was not as widespread as previously thought, and that the rooms where the mold was found had already been closed. Students are expected to return in the fall after repairs are completed.]

The Montessori consolidations are happening as the district considers turning Spain and Palmer Park schools into Montessori-only buildings, Vitti said.

If that happens, Vitti said, teachers and support staff would stay together, moving their classrooms to the new locations and keeping student groups together. Parents could then decide if they want to travel to another school for Montessori or transfer into a traditional classroom at their current schools.  

“If a parent is not interested and we do move to Spain,” Vitti said. “I think the child would still have a great education in Chrysler even not in the Montessori program based on the reputation and history of the school,” he said.

Teachers will get more training

The district’s Montessori program has been sending teachers out of state for training to learn Montessori techniques, which allow children to learn at their own pace in mixed-age classrooms. But Vitti said he hopes to provide training locally.

“We are looking to expand training for our teachers, and we have already put forth dollars in next year’s plan to do so,” he said. “We want to expand district staff … so we can reduce costs instead of sending teachers out of the city” for training.

New restrictions will prevent students from joining the program after second grade

Vitti said the district is working to make sure the students in Montessori classrooms have been steeped in a “pure” Montessori education.

Because  students who attended a traditional kindergarten or first grade might have difficulty adapting to the Montessori method, adding new challenges for teachers, Vitti said the district plans to restrict when students can sign up for the program.

If a child is past second grade and hasn’t been in the program, adding her would disrupt learning for the rest of the students, Vitti said.

“Beyond second grade, we cannot accept them into the program,” he said.

A pool of Montessori-trained substitutes will be created

Currently, when Montessori teachers call in sick, the substitute may not be trained in the program, Vitti said. But that could change.

The district is looking for ways to create a pool of substitute teachers trained in Montessori concepts and structure, he said.

A lottery will be used to decide admissions  

Vitti said he thinks within the next few years as the program grows, there will not be enough seats available to accommodate everyone who wants it. When that happens, he said, the district will implement a lottery and ensure diversity of students by taking demographic factors into account.

That process would probably include factors to be looked at like …… where the school is, proximity, giving preference to those who live in the immediate neighborhood, to ensure diversity,” he said. “There’s a way to create a waiting system to ensure that happens.”

“We will get to the point where demand exceeds supply,” he said.