If you’ve ever looked at George Washington Elementary School as being a separate entity from the rest of the Kingston City School District, you’re not alone. According to a report by an independent consultant hired to study the 4-year-old Montessori program at GW, a widening gulf between teachers and staff there and those elsewhere in the district must be remedied for the success of all of Kingston’s schools.
Sean Walmsley, a SUNY Albany professor emeritus, discussed his 31-page report before the Board of Education last week, noting that the implementation of the Montessori program at the school had left many in the district feeling resentment — a bitterness he said was fuelled by the perception that the cost of maintaining Montessori is pulling funds away from other schools.
When George Washington began its transformation to a full Montessori program prior to the 2008-09 school year, then-superintendent Gerard Gretzinger unveiled a concept that would allow George Washington teachers and staff not interested in being part of the program to transfer elsewhere in the district, filling the vacant positions with other like-minded educators from other schools. Walmsley’s report identified three George Washington teachers staying, along with four teaching assistants, five special area teachers and assistants and nine other staff members including social workers and academic intervention specialists.
Walmsley’s report commended the concept, though it added that it wasn’t entirely successful.
“Montessori requires there to be a whole-school commitment to its philosophy, and having the staff at least willing to be brought on board would make the transition a great deal easier,” wrote Walmsley. “But the downside was the disruption of an entire building and a lot of resentment from educators displaced from ‘their’ school. This resentment still festers today.”
Walmsley interviewed numerous district employees in preparing his report, including some former George Washington educators who felt they were treated unfairly for asking critical questions about the Montessori method. Elsewhere, district staff often judged the program harshly because students weren’t performing as well on testing as in other schools with similar demographics. There was also the issue of how Montessori was funded.
When the district unveiled its Montessori plan prior to its implementation, one of the selling points was that the roughly $900,000 needed to train staff, purchase materials and otherwise pay for the school to complete its transition would come from grants and wouldn’t impact local taxpayers. In the first year, the $300,000 grant came through as expected, but when the remaining $600,000 could not be raised through state grants, school officials had to come up with the money by using grants and other funds which might otherwise have gone to other schools in the district.
Walmsley said that much of the resentment also derives from misconceptions about the Montessori method and how visitors to George Washington saw it implemented during its first year.
“I use the term ‘chaotic’ because that’s what everybody says,” said Walmsley, adding that his own impressions of the school last year were considerably different. “This is without doubt: All you have to do is to spend even very little time in G.W. to see exactly what’s going on.”
Walmsley said he was impressed by how well-behaved the students were, both in their interactions with one another and the staff. He credited that to the school’s efforts to address the social and emotional needs of its students, something he said he was particularly struck by with special education pupils.
“This is the first time I’ve ever observed special education classes with Montessori teaching, and it’s been really interesting,” Walmsley said. “It’s really interesting to see, and I wish more people could actually see what happens when you actually treat a youngster who has social behavioral and academic issues in an incredibly respectful manner.”
The report on the social and emotional development of the students at George Washington was well-received by Trustee Robin Jacobowitz.
“To me, that’s as important as the test scores,” she said. “I think that’s very significant. I want to acknowledge and recognize the work that G.W. has done around that.”