Our Story – The Story of the Colorado Montessori Association
Montessori Children’s House of Denver (MCHD) President & CEO
Everyone loves a good story. So, let me tell you the story of CMA. It is the story of the journey of an entire community of Colorado Montessorians; a story in which people came together, selfishly at first, and then in pursuit of a higher purpose.
You may not have realized it, but the CMA story, like many stories, actually had its foundation in another story altogether that happened a long time ago when the Montessori schools in Colorado had both created and dissolved a variety of self-formed organizations, many of whose acronyms have since been forgotten.
The one organization that I remember the best was called the Montessori Association of Colorado (or MAC). I have distant memories of attending informal meetings at several Denver schools over 25 years ago that gave local Directors a chance to see each other and talk about issues they were struggling with. I don’t know what happened to the Montessori Association of Colorado. I imagine that the people coordinating it stopped being able to manage the group, and no one else stepped in to fill their shoes.
15 years later, in 2008, CMA’s story began. We didn’t know it was CMA’s story then, though. In 2008, Beatrice Watson (MCHD’s Executive Director at the time) and I were meeting at our school and working together through a particularly difficult situation. Afterward, we were reflecting on how fortunate we both felt to have one another to bounce ideas off of, to be real with, and to have support from. Leadership can be lonely, especially when difficult situations arise, and we wondered how leaders working alone in their roles managed to keep their balance and their sanity.
Beatrice and I had both been in Denver in Montessori School Leadership roles for a very long time, and we both remembered the time when MAC existed and the network of support that it offered. In contrast, in 2008, we had almost no contact with other local heads of school. As we reflected on the absence of that sense of community, we began to imagine the possibilities of starting something like that up again – only simpler this time so it would be self-sustaining. We called one of our colleagues, Lisa Armao, at another local Montessori School to see what she thought about the idea.
A week or two later, we sat down together and threw ideas off of one another. The one that we liked best was a Director’s Network. The plan was to keep it simple: no formal organization, no costs or infrastructure. Instead, we simply compiled a list of all of the schools in the area and reached out to them to host meetings. The hosting school each month managed the meeting, decided on topics, and provided snacks. The first meetings were just networking and roundtable conversations where people could discuss whatever was most pressing on their minds.
It was easy, and it was wonderful. Clearly we weren’t the only ones who felt there was a need for connection. Schools were excited to sign up and we were off and running with almost no effort. School leaders got to know one another and we had a great deal of fun together. We talked about all of the things that are hard to talk about like handling difficult staff and family situations, liability, budgets, legal issues. And, we talked about fun things as well like developing literacy, engaging families and staff, creating outdoor learning environments and so on. We even talked about our families and our personal lives.
Everything sailed along rather uneventfully for 3 years. And then, in April 2011, something unexpected and unthinkable for many of us happened.
For as long as I can remember, there had been almost an unspoken agreement between Montessori Schools and CDHS Licensing that the regulations about breakables, choke-ables and sharp objects didn’t apply to the Montessori curriculum materials. But in April 2011, there was a change in the enforcement of those rules, and several of our local schools starting being cited on the use of breakables, choke-ables, and sharp objects in the classroom and had to remove their Montessori classroom materials just to keep their doors open, compromising their ability to offer high-fidelity Montessori programs.
We are all passionate about our curriculum, so as you can probably imagine even if you weren’t in Montessori here in Colorado at the time, all of us were shaken to our core. In a Montessori primary classroom, not allowing the use of breakables, choke-ables and sharp objects meant prohibiting the materials required to implement Montessori across the curriculum. No glass or porcelain for control of error in Practical Life, no punching works, no smallest cube on the pink tower, no bead materials, no object boxes: the list went on and on. Our school heads at the Directors’ Network meetings were distraught, and the meeting attendance grew exponentially and began to feel more like town hall meetings. Everyone was feeling afraid about what this would mean for Montessori in Colorado.
Admittedly, there were some very heated discussions both at our own meetings and also at meetings held for the community by CDHS. And, there were some moments in our interactions that we aren’t terribly proud of as a Montessori community. Montessorians and the Department of Human Services seemed irreparably angry and at odds with one another. And Montessori schools were very much at their mercy. We felt helpless. In spite of our sense of desperation, though, one thing became very clear. Our little networking group was serving the purpose of bringing our community together during a time of need. And, we were much stronger together than apart. Our voice as a Montessori community was gradually starting to be heard, even by the regulatory agencies.
Finally, people coming together through the Directors’ Network began to explore options beyond CDHS and ended up working directly with Senator Johnston to propose a House Bill to allow for waivers. Dot Thompson and Kathryn Ross, through MECR, valiantly stepped up to join a workgroup to draft the bill and help to get it passed, and in the spring of 2012, House Bill 1276 was born, making it possible for schools to apply for materials waivers so that they could continue to practice Montessori with fidelity.
It was a stunning victory for the Montessori community: a watershed moment. One that gave us perspective on the power of having a formal group that represented Montessori in Colorado cohesively.
So, immediately afterward, in May 2012, the Director’s Network group met and decided that it was time to make things formal to ensure a robust and effective voice in Colorado for Montessori pedagogy for the foreseeable future. We knew that moving forward, we wanted to be proactive instead of reactive. The Directors’ Network voted in our May meeting to have Kathryn Ross, RB Fast and I start the work needed to formalize our organization. And we did. We began to recruit other board members, and to create an infrastructure for a non-profit organization, getting financial support from several founding schools throughout our community.
Kathryn, RB & I recognized that our success with HB 1276 came from being inclusive and respectful. The HB 1276 victory came directly out of building relationships and speaking our truth with the greater community while ourselves acting in integrity with our Montessori values of respect for ourselves and others alike. So, we felt that keeping those values in mind as we set out was crucial.
In forming the CMA Board of Directors, we brought in other prominent and active members of the Montessori community to help us in our work. Together, we created our Mission Statement, our website, our membership lists, drew up our bylaws and filed with the State of Colorado. It was an exciting time.
Since then, an amazing amount of work has happened. CMA has become a cornerstone organization for the Montessori community in Colorado. Here are just a few highlights of the work that has happened over the past 6 years since CMA was formed:
- Monthly Director’s Network Meetings
- Monthly Teacher Mingles
- Annual Peace gathering
- Annual Colorado Montessori Conference.
- Partnering with schools and training centers to sponsor and host several big-name speakers.
- Bringing together Public & Private schools to support the success of all types of Montessori schools for the betterment of our entire community.
- Advocacy work
- School Validation for CDHS materials waivers.
- Joining the CDHS workgroup to develop clear criteria for materials waivers
- Meeting with Qualistar representatives about developing a Montessori track that
- is more accurately reflective of Montessori practices.
- Building relationships and working closely with CDHS, CDE and with the National Montessori Advocacy organizations, like MPPI (Montessori Public Policy Initiative), to continue to advocate for Montessori schools in Colorado
For me personally, it has been an amazing 6 years of being on the board of the Colorado Montessori Association, and a wonderful 10 years of coordinating Director’s Network Meetings. It fills my heart with such joy to see the relationships that have been ignited through CMA and to be a part of an organization that brings people together in such a magical way.
As a result of the advocacy work that CMA does, Colorado Montessori schools are able to operate with fidelity and in alignment with Montessori best-practices. And, thanks to the incredible work of our Event Committee, our community is strong because we are able to network with one another, celebrate and have fun together, and attend relevant professional development that meets State requirements.
I am humbled to have been able to be a part of something so monumental at a watershed moment in our community’s history. And, I am so heartened as I am coming to the end of my 2nd term serving on the CMA Board of Directors to know that the current leadership is carrying forward our founding board’s vision with incredible integrity and has already made it even better than we could have ever imagined! I feel blessed to have worked alongside such highly professional board members and even more blessed to have forged lifelong friendships along the way. I am deeply honored to have been trusted by our community with the task of helping to found this important organization.
And, so, that is the story so far of the Colorado Montessori Association. However, there is no “The End” or “Happily Ever After” to wrap up this story because the best is no doubt yet to come.
To that end, I urge each of you, our incredible Colorado Montessori community members to continue to: Stay tuned in and stay connected. Be involved. Communicate your needs with CMA. Attend meetings. Be a member school. Volunteer. Donate. Serve on a committee or on the CMA Board of Directors. And, enjoy all of the benefits of having a strong professional organization advocating on your behalf and serving your school and Montessori because you never know when it will be crucial that we have this strong community to draw on, and without members like you doing your part, the Colorado Montessori Association wouldn’t exist.