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Emerson Montessori School in North Tulsa | Courtesy of Black Wall Street Times

By Nehemiah Frank

TULSA, Okla. — The word on the street is: Tulsa Public Schools’ newest addition, the public Montessori at Emerson Elementary in north Tulsa, will inevitably become gentrified. A community mostly composed of lower-income black and brown families have good reason to be concerned if TPS isn’t serious about hiring teachers of color and if it doesn’t put equitable policies in place that ensure a Montessori choice always remains an option for low-income students of color in Tulsa. 

In Chicago, Illinois, Montessori schools that mostly served lower-income black and brown students, living in the neighborhoods, experienced gentrification a few short years upon opening. The causation of such rapid gentrification in these schools reveals that upper-income and wealthier class Americans understand the value of the Montessori education.

Currently, Emerson Elementary perches on-top a hill nearly surrounded by a historically black community. Notwithstanding the fact that to the west of the school, signs of gentrification are noticeably evident. Homes are currently being remodeled in the historic Brady Heights neighborhood. A racially homogenous and wealthier population is moving-back after decades of white flight. To the south of the school within the 244 loop, residential buildings are erecting in the Arts District formally known as the Brady District. 

A new Montessori institution that currently boasts a 70-percent African-American pupil population, coupled with an 80-percent white pedagogical population signals a red flag to a black community that has historically and presently experiences systemic oppression — racial-systematic suppression: socially, physically, cognitively, economically, and academically. Moreover, 7 out of the 8 Montessori teachers’ ethnicities don’t reflect the population they are serving. 

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Earlier this year, after hearing the news that our community would receive a Montessori school, another education advocate and I booked plane tickets to the nearest Montessori. The main reason for our travel: Our community had grave concerns regarding the possibility of gentrification taking place at Emerson Elementary upon the opening of it as a public Montessori. We chose the Public Montessori of Englewood but it closely reflected similar demographics to the Emerson Montessori.  

Kandy White and I sat down with Rita Nolan, the executive director and principal of the public Montessori school, located in the majority black Englewood community in Chicago, Illinois.

Director Nolan explained that she had to be intentional about hiring teachers that looked like the students the public Montessori of Englewood serves.

Prior foundering the Englewood Montessori, Ms. Nolan worked as the Upper School Director on the opposite side of town, at a Montessori located in Wicker Park, Near North Montessori, where parents pay $15,000 annual for their child’s school tuition. Ms. Nolan said once the school opened they immediately began to notice the changing demographics of the neighborhood. A neighborhood that for decades largely composed of Latinxs became more middle-, upper-class and white.

Before the arrival of the Near North Montessori, in the Wicker Park Community of Chicago, the predominantly Latinx community pushed back when they heard that a Montessori school was scheduled to occupy one of the buildings in their neighborhood.

When we initially wrote the charter, we wrote it for the Avondale neighborhood. “There were hundreds of people who came to our community meetings. These were young professionals,” Ms. Nolan explained.

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Initially, Chicago Public Schools didn’t grant Ms. Nolan the charter, stating “They believed, I didn’t have enough experience to open the charter and rightly so in an urban environment and underserved community. So, I did my principled internship at Amos Alonzo Stagg High School,” another predominantly Latinx community located in south-west Chicago.

When Ms. Nolan completed her internship, she reapplied for the Montessori Charter to be placed in Avondale. However, Chicago Public Schools challenged her and asked: “Why are you going back to Avondale to put another Montessori school on the Northside? Why don’t you put an alternative school in Englewood? The Southside doesn’t have that kind of choice.” Ms. Nolan agreed and found a location in West Englewood, where she believed the school would be protected from possible gentrification.

“Had we placed the school in Avondale, on the North side of the city, the school would have been gentrified within two minutes,” she told us.

She continued, “We deliberately protected the school because the Near North Montessori gentrified that neighborhood, the Drummer Montessori in Buckhead has a waiting list of over 2,000 kids, the neighborhood has been gentrified. Oscar Myer Montessori had children from the Cabrini Green Housing Project community. They turned their neighborhood school into Montessori. So you had black kids literally growing through the program with low test scores white next to white upper-class kids whose parents were gentrifying the neighborhood scoring in the 98 percentile; you could literally see the black kids getting pushed out.”

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Like north Tulsans, also a predominantly African-American community much like Englewood, there was a lot of skepticism in the community. She further explained that the community told her that black boys needed discipline, and the idea of the Montessori being a kind of constructivist approach also concerned some Chicago Public Schools’ board members.

“The community initially wanted something different. It takes years and years for people to understand what a Montessori is,” Ms. Nolan explained. But CPS eventually granted them the public charter.

As for recruitment, the school very much recruits its teachers and students from the Englewood community. When Ms. Nolan first opened the school she said that the majority of the administration and its teachers were white. She found it difficult to find black teachers who were trained in the Montessori method. However, after years of losing teachers who couldn’t adjust to the social and cultural environment of working on the Southside of Chicago, Ms. Nolan realized that she needed teachers who could relate and understand the children and were comfortable with the surroundings. So she found a location where new Montessori teachers could be trained and she hired black teachers who were willing to go through the program. She said she was intentional about hiring black teachers because she believed the Montessori method could work for all children.

“Our biggest success is how we work with the community.”

The Montessori in Englewood does a great job in ensuring that cultural empowerment for the children they serve is present. The staff is diverse, but black educators are nearly in every classroom, and the school also has African Americans who are represented in its administration.

Only time will tell if equity is indeed a priority for the new Emerson Montessori school.

Nehemiah D. Frank is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Black Wall Street Times and a descendant of two families that survived the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Although his publication’s store and newsroom...