Building a Community Montessori Program
It’s hard to believe, but we’re already into week eight for our Montessori program. It feels like we only just got started! Things are busy with a just-big-enough room full of three and not-quite-three-year-olds, all of whom are new to Montessori, but I see things settling, slowly, surely. So many readers have shared my excitement over this new undertaking, and yet I haven’t fully explained how it came to be or how it’s set up to work so far. I know a few others have considered something similar, so I thought I’d explain how our program works. Below are the steps I took in establishing it, which did not and do not necessarily need to happen in this order.
Clarify The Vision
The idea of starting a community program came about when I had considered all of the options in our area and determined that there simply was not an affordable Montessori program a reasonable distance from our home. The obvious solution, then, was to start one myself. The primary goal was to create a community environment for my almost-three-year-old, Annabelle, where she could work with the Montessori materials in the context of a group of peers. Of course I wanted to offer an authentic Montessori environment for other children, too, which is why we didn’t just get some materials and set up a classroom for Annabelle in our house. I knew that I wanted a group of at least 6 children, that I wanted to set up and maintain a dedicated, well-equipped space for them, and that I wanted to meet at least twice per week for at least three hours. I also wanted to keep the cost as low as possible so that all who wanted to participate would be able to do so. I have even bigger plans for the future, but at this stage of my family’s journey, this was pretty much it.
Consider What You’re Willing to Do
Aside from the children and their families, the major elements necessary for creating an informal program like ours are: a guide, a facility, and materials. Before looking to involve others, I spent some time thinking through, and talking with my partner/husband about what our family was willing to provide to make the vision of a community program a reality. Being a trained Montessori teacher, and having already arranged our family’s budget in a way that makes it possible for me to do unpaid work, I was prepared, and quite happy to act as the guide. For a few different reasons, we decided that we were not prepared to open our home as the facility. Since I do have plans for the future that involve a need for Montessori materials, we decided it made sense for us to invest in and provide those. If we had multiple people chip in, I was concerned that figuring out who had rights to what if the program dissolved may get a bit dicey, so I did some cost analysis and broke out the budget to find a way to provide materials. Knowing what I was willing and able to provide clarified what I would need to look to the other families in our group for.
Research Applicable Laws
This step is really pretty interchangeable with the previous one, because as you decide what laws may apply to you, you may uncover other things that you or someone else will need to do to make your program possible. I looked at local laws so that I could think through possibilities for the structure of our program. While I knew I was willing to act as guide for our program, I also knew that I was not ready to start a full-on business, so I looked closely at the laws in search of a way to see my vision through without opening a business. Still overwhelmed by the adjustment from one to two children, the extra time and money involved in a business endeavor was not something I was ready to put in.
In every US state that I’m aware of, private Montessori early childhood programs are subject to the same set of regulations that govern all facilities providing child care. In Maryland, where we live, the Department of Education oversees childcare centers and family child care homes, so I reviewed the rules and regulations on their site. In some states, cooperative programs are exempt from licensing laws, but here in Maryland, that is not the case. There was really no way, I determined, that I could legally run a program that involved parents dropping their children off and leaving, unless I registered as a daycare center. This would be more time intensive, more costly, and it would require me to do all sorts of things I didn’t really need to do, like take SIDS training and set up a crib for Elliot. I’m pretty comfortable keeping my baby in a wrap on my back, or set up with some toys across the room from me for a few hours while I work with my daughter and some friends, and I figured that parents interested in a community program would be pretty capable of helping me scrutinize our set-up to make sure everything was perfectly safe and appropriate for our children. So, while I think licensing has a pretty important place as a regulator of childcare centers, I didn’t feel we, as a group of very involved parents, really needed to involve them in this early stage of our endeavor.
Of course I’m also not at all willing to operate illegally, so I had to come up with a structure that would make us exempt from the childcare licensing laws. In talking to someone at the licensing office, carefully reading the laws, and checking my interpretation with other parents and with a lawyer, I decided that we would have to ask parents to stay on site during class. If they were present, what we’d be offering would not be childcare, so we would not be a childcare center. Easy. Our local laws do allow for up to 20 hours a month of nonregular care of a friend’s child without having to classify oneself as a childcare provider, which is an important part of our set-up that I’ll discuss later.
Before I got too far into the planning process, I found an excellent and caring attorney to run my plans by. As a mother herself, with children in a cooperative preschool, she was excited about what I was doing, and happy to help. Everything was coming together beautifully, but I was terrified that I was missing some vital element, and perhaps even doing something completely illegal without realizing it. My attorney’s words were reassuring, and she agreed to take a look at all of the many documents I planned to draft in the weeks that would follow.
This step, too, is pretty interchangeable and/or parallel to the ones above. As soon as I decided I’d like to look into building something, I put out my initial feelers, and the response from that was encouraging enough that I continued to move forward with parts of the steps above and below. Fortunately, our town has a couple of very active list serves (yahoo email groups) – a general one and one just for parents, so I started by posting there. I compiled a list of interested families from the responses I received and let everyone know I’d be in touch about a meeting when the time came. Once the above was settled, I came up with a loose idea for structuring things and invited the families who had expressed interested to an info session, where I explained a bit about Montessori philosophy and described my vision for the short term as well as the long. I threw out my ideas for structuring things and everyone was thrilled. At the end of that meeting, all but one family was fully committed to joining us, and the one holdout ended up committing down the line.
Decide on a Structure
Once I knew we had enough families to make our plans a reality, it was time to figure out how we could legally structure a program without starting a daycare center. After much thought, I decided it made the most sense to go with the solution of requiring parents to stay on site during class. If parents are there, we’re not providing child care and therefore obviously are not a child care center, but then a large number of parents standing around in a Montessori classroom doesn’t really work for a number of reasons. With all of this in mind, I determined that we would need a space for our classroom and an adjacent space in the building for parents to relax during class. More on that in the next section.
Since my plan was to purchase and maintain Montessori materials, it didn’t make a lot of sense to share teaching duties with others, so my plan was to act as the guide during each class meeting. Outside of that, I knew I wanted to distribute tasks so that I could avoid charging tuition and handling other administrative duties. For now, while my children are so small, I just want to enjoy being in the classroom so that I can save the rest of my time for snuggles and silliness. In the end, we created a number of roles, and each family fulfills one. For our program specifically, we have:
- a hostess, which is the person who owns the building where we meet
- a treasurer, who collects monthly payments from each family and uses those to cover the rent for our classroom space. To keep it simple, we collect exactly what’s due in rent and no more.
- a secretary, who handles sign in sheets, waivers, and other forms
- a maintenance director, who organizes snack and cleaning schedules, as well as community work days
- two classroom volunteers, who switch off to fill the role of assistant teacher
All but two of the families share the cost of rent. The hostess and I are non-paying members, since we have each put quite a bit of money into setting the classroom up, and of course I put in far more time, as the guide, than do any of the other parents. If we had a larger group, I would love to add an additional classroom volunteer who could do things like make copies, cut metal inset paper, and cut things out for art activities. I’d also love to have a parent who supervises the outdoor area so that any child who wants to be outside can be, at any time. I’m hoping to make that possible, at least on most days, in the spring.
Settle on a Location
My first thought was to see about making an arrangement with one of the local churches. Maybe one of them would have a spare Sunday School room down the hall from a bathroom. There wouldn’t be major events on weekday mornings, so we’d pretty much have the run of the place. Two of them have preschool programs already, so ideally I thought I may even be able to piggyback on their status as a childcare center and convince them to add a Montessori classroom to their offerings. I put feelers out all over, but it seemed both preschool programs were short on space for their existing programs as it was, and none of the churches seemed too keen on the idea. I went to the list serve again, and asked for ideas on a space to rent that would meet my criteria. I hit send while trying to quiet the voices that were telling me how hard everyone who read my message was going to laugh. What I asked for was:
- One decent sized, climate controlled room that is not utilized by other children’s groups during the week
- At least one window
- Access to a bathroom
- Access to an outdoor space – ideally through a door that goes directly outdoors from the room itself.
Given that I was looking specifically for something in our neighborhood town, which is roughly one square mile of single family homes without much else at all, this seemed like a pretty tall order. Much to my delight, however, I heard from someone almost immediately. She’s a mom I know, who has a child close to Annabelle’s age. She had been looking for a preschool program for her child, and was also preparing to look for new tenants for her mother-in-law quarters. Not only that, but she’s a carpenter and a muralist by trade. I pinched myself a few times. The space she had available has a private entrance and exit through the back yard, a separate bathroom, a kitchen space, and two separate rooms: one for the classroom, and for the parent lounge. She offered to discount the rent as her contribution to the group, and to do some work on the space to make it more suitable for the children. Score! Thanks to her hard work, there’s now a cozy room with a sofa and chairs for parents to work or relax in during class. This room is connected by a small hallway to the classroom and, in between the two, is the bathroom that both children and parents can use. Just what we needed!
Clarify Details and Draft Agreements
Once I had the above details worked out, I called another meeting of interested parents. Since I now knew who was in, and where we’d be meeting, I was able to more clearly determine and, in turn describe, how I envisioned things working. To my surprise (and relief), everyone was completely and totally on board with my ideas and we were able to make firm plans for getting started at this final planning meeting.
With everyone officially on board with the plan, my next step involved spending many hours at my computer, writing up agreements, policies, and waivers, in hopes of making sure every detail would be crystal clear. Once everything was ready, I ran it by my attorney, made recommended changes, and then got it off to our families. Here are the documents I found necessary.
- Mission Statement and brief info packet for prospective families
- Description of program structure and schedule
- List of Members and Roles, complete with descriptions of the responsibilities associated with each one
- Liability Waivers – since we’re functioning as a community group, everyone is liable in a sense, if something should happen. For this reason, we have all signed a waiver that releases every member of the group from liability.
- Membership agreement, which outlines the expectations for group members
- Payment agreement, which explains how the rent is divided up and collected
- Sign in sheets and sign out1 sheets to keep track of attendance
- Incident Reports, which we’ll use to document any bumps, bruises, and such
We also keep a roster and community calendar online, and recently added a building usage agreement to outline the expectations of/from our hostesses with regard to our use of the space. As the guide, I created a very basic parent handbook that describes the curriculum and outlines what parents can expect from the Montessori experience, and our secretary has come up with schedules for things like snack and cleaning. For a fairly informal group of neighbors, this may be a bit excessive, but I’d rather have too much paperwork than not enough.
I wrote a couple of posts while working on this stage in the process. First, I explored the question of what materials are essential in a Montessori 3-6 environment, and then I covered the various options for purchasing materials, plus some links for those who are inclined toward DIY and handmade options. As mentioned above, since I know I’ll have a use for the materials in the future, I decided it made the most sense for me to simply purchase them myself. This way, there’s no question over how we’ll divvy them up if the group dissolves, and I have everything I’ll need to take the next step on the path toward realizing The Big Dream. Another option would be to figure the total cost of what you plan to buy and ask each family to chip in that amount, then sell the materials and divide the earnings among the founding members when and if you decide to move on to something different. What you actually need in the first months of your group’s existence is likely to be pretty minimal anyway.
Set up and Get Started!
With all of the above elements squared away, all that’s left is to set up and start meeting. We have class two mornings a week right now, and will consider adding more days in the fall depending on how the routine is working for each of our families. We’re taking it one step at a time, and I’m excited to see where that takes us! If you missed it, you can see a tour of our classroom here.
- Since we are able to care for the children of our friends on a limited basis, we developed a sheet that parents can use when they want to use class time to run errands or take a little “me” time, etc. They just sign themselves out and designate a friend who’s sticking around to be responsible for their child until they get back. The sign out sheets are really just for our record keeping, so that if a question ever arose, we could show that we were following the law very carefully. ↩