With Mata Montessori, Did DISD Sell Its Soul for the Middle Class?

Ester Zapata’s sister and brother attended Mount Auburn Elementary. Zapata’s two eldest children, now 24 and 18, went there as well. So when it came time for her youngest, Emily, to enter kindergarten, there was no question that she’d follow in the footsteps of her aunt and uncle and brother and sister even though the family now lived several miles away near Jim Miller Road and Interstate 30.

Mount Auburn Elementary is like that. The school, located on Grand Avenue and surrounded on three sides by Samuell Grand Park, opened in 1922, making it one of the oldest campuses in DISD. The Hispanic families who began buying and sprucing up the surrounding Mount Auburn neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s, rescuing it from the low-rent landlords and stopping the cycle of decay that set in following the departure of working class whites, adopted the school as their own. It is now filled with students from families like Zapata’s, who have had two and three generations pass through its halls.

And Mount Auburn, despite daunting demographic challenges (more than 90 percent of the student body is low-income and more than half the kids are learning English), was an excellent school. It consistently outpaced DISD and the state on academic measures. In 2011, before Texas overhauled its school accountability system, Mount Auburn was rated Exemplary, the state’s highest designation.

So when DISD began talking about turning Mount Auburn’s sister school, Mata Elementary, into a Montessori campus, Zapata and her fellow parents were skeptical. Mata had been built in the late 1990s to reduce overcrowding at Mount Auburn; the kids who went to Mount Auburn for kindergarten through 3rd grade moved to Mata for 4th and 5th. The proposed change would return 4th and 5th grades to Mount Auburn and make Mata a boundary-less “choice” school, open by lottery to any student in the district.

The district, particularly Tracie Fraley, the executive director of the Woodrow Wilson High School feeder pattern, and trustee Mike Morath, now the Texas Education Commissioner, touted the change as better than a win-win, a way to kill not just two but a half dozen birds with a single stone.

Mata was cavernously empty by the end of 2013, running at a third of capacity after losing a large proportion of its population to the opening of the new O.M. Roberts Elementary. The Montessori program promised to fill it back up. The change would also eliminate the awkward K-3/4-5 split between Mount Auburn and Mata. Not only was the setup unique in DISD, research indicates that school transitions have a negative impact on student achievement, suggesting that the arrangement was not only anomalous but was, in fact, actively harmful to students.

But it wasn’t the probable benefits to Mount Auburn students or the more optimal utilization of the Mata campus that was driving the discussion. Mount Auburn families, after all, were content with the status quo. According to a survey that Fraley would present to trustees, only 8 percent said they intended to send their child to a theoretical Montessori program at Mata.

Rather, the discussion was driven by the prospect of relieving overcrowding at Lakewood and Stonewall Jackson elementaries, which was itself inextricably tied to the district’s eternal goal of hanging on to the middle- and upper-income families who had been fleeing the district for decades. Attracting Lakewood and Stonewall families willingly to a Montessori program could balance enrollment without redrawing attendance zones, which would immediately and thoroughly alienate the only affluent communities that were wholeheartedly invested in DISD.

None of this was lost on Zapata. “Most of Mount Auburn is minority, versus Lakewood, versus Stonewall, we’re talking about middle class and up – that’s a big difference,” she said. She understood that it wasn’t class or ethnicity per se that tilted the discussion away from Mount Auburn and towards Lakewood and Stonewall so much as the divergent levels of parental involvement and political clout tied to class and ethnicity, but that didn’t make it seem any fairer.

“We [didn’t] want to let go of Mata,” she said. Especially not for a program that held minimal interest for Mount Auburn’s working-class Hispanic families, who Zapata says were generally unfamiliar with Montessori and inclined to be skeptical of the focus on self-directed learning. “Montessori is pretty much run by people with money,” Zapata said.

In response to the Mount Auburn community’s hesitance and prodding from DISD trustees, Fraley came up with a plan to pair the changes at Mata with a similar overhaul of Mount Auburn. Mount Auburn would become a STEAM campus, a voguish educational model that, as the acronym hints at, offers a curriculum emphasizing science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics.
In January of 2014, Fraley and the Mount Auburn principal, Maria Luz Martinez, briefed DISD trustees on the proposal. "STEAM will help Mount Auburn students develop a competitive edge for careers of the future through the combination of critical thinking and creativity," their PowerPoint promised. It was an education for the 21st century. (Martinez is no longer with the district and could not be reached for comment. Fraley directed questions to a DISD spokesperson who promised to provide answers a week ago but hasn't yet delivered them.)
Parents climbed on board. Yina Perez, Mount Auburn's PTA president at the time, saw it as a way for students to be exposed to concepts and resources that otherwise would have been out of reach."If we have our students be more open to technology and science and all those cool things," Perez said, then they would better be prepared for higher education and careers. "We were all excited," Perez recalled.

Mata Montessori (where, full disclosure, my wife teaches and my son goes to school) is a smashing success. The campus is filling up. It's attracted a good number of families from Lakewood, Stonewall, and other well-off neighborhoods, which has created a demographic and socioeconomic mix that's rare in DISD. Only two-thirds of the students were low-income, far below both the district rate (90 percent) and the level at Mata before the Montessori program was implemented (95 percent) and a level that's closer to the point at which school poverty goes from manageable to corrosive.

Two years in, parents are beating down Mata's doors. The district recently conducted a lottery to fill 80 open slots for the 2016-17 school year; it fielded 445 applications, a ratio of nearly six applicants for every open seat.

Mount Auburn, meanwhile, has looked like a disaster. It's enrollment has jumped from around 600 to 736, which was expected but is nevertheless high for a campus whose estimated capacity is 656. Academically, the school has fallen off a cliff. The percentage of students passing the STAAR test dropped from 83 percent in 2013 school year to 55 percent in 2015. The test scores were so bad that Mount Auburn was given a rating of "improvement required" and placed on the state's list of underperforming schools.

Mount Auburn's precipitous slide is something of a mystery. There was no reason the third graders whose STAAR scores put the school on the state accountability list shouldn't have been any less capable than the third graders who'd done so well two years before. And Mount Auburn didn't have any fifth graders, whose scores also would have factored into the state's assessment. They had stayed behind at Mata to finish their elementary careers, going to traditional classes on the third floor while the Montessori program launched on the two lower floors. It was their test scores that put Mata on the same improvement required list as Mount Auburn.

It certainly couldn't have been the new STEAM curriculum because, as far as anyone could tell, there wasn't one. Mata had been given hundreds of thousands of dollars for specialized Montessori materials and teacher training. Mount Auburn got a dance teacher and a drama teacher.

Perez and Zapata both appreciate the arts enrichment. Zapata's daughter, Emily, thrived in dance. She's attending a dance camp at Booker T. Washington arts magnet this summer and will attend Greiner, DISD's middle-school arts magnet, as a sixth grader next year.

But they weren't promised an A; they were promised STEAM. What happened to the other four letters is beyond them. "When it comes down to it, I still haven't seen anything," Perez says.

Such an outcome wasn't exactly unforeseeable. The Mata proposal was highly detailed, the result of nearly a year of community meetings and close attention by the DISD administration and then-trustee Mike Morath. Zapata was one of a small handful of Mount Auburn parents who made it to the Mata meetings to voice their concerns.

Partly, the low turnout was reflective of the challenges of getting parents involved at a campus where most of them worked long hours at blue-collar jobs and didn't have a tradition of school involvement. It also didn't help, Zapata says, that Mount Auburn parents weren't exactly invited. Whereas most events were touted in announcements and advertised on widely distributed fliers, Zapata had to chase down Mount Auburn's principal to find out about the Mata meetings.

The Mount Auburn STEAM proposal, by contrast, was barely a sketch when it was presented to DISD's board in early 2014, thrown together in about a month.

Trustee Bernadette Nutall, whose district includes Mata (but not, thanks to gerrymandered trustee districts, Mount Auburn a mile down the road), was the most vocal critic of the Mata/Mount Auburn overhaul, and she grilled Fraley, the DISD administrator behind the proposal, on the disparity between the two plans during a February 2014 board meeting.

"So Ms Fraley, we're going to change Mata to become a Montessori school ... and yet the students, [aside from] the eight percent of parents who opt in, the rest of the parents who go to Mount Auburn, we're just gonna keep that traditional and not give them everything we give the Montessori school?" Nutall asked, incredulous. "So the kids that don't want to do Montessori, they're going to go to Mount Auburn and yet we haven't created a budget or yet created a special program for the kids at Mount Auburn, but we have this full plan for the kids at Mata?"

The proposed admissions policy at Mata Montessori, which would give first priority to Mount Auburn students before being opened up to students living in the Woodrow Wilson feeder pattern, then the rest of DISD, gave a cursory nod to equity, but Nutall felt it was superficial. Given the almost complete lack of interest on the part of Mount Auburn families, Woodrow-bound Lakewood and Stonewall families seemed to be the prime beneficiaries of the policy.

"It seems to me that we would create such a quality program at Mt. Auburn just like we're doing at Mata," Nutall concluded.

Fraley parried. "Keep in mind, Trustee Nutall, that Mount Auburn historically has been a highly successful campus. They've been rated exemplary in our old system. They also not only met all standards [under the state's new accountability system], they've met distinctions as well, so they have a very good, comprehensive elementary in place.

"Secondly because we have not had the discussions at an in-depth level about Mt. Auburn becoming a STEAM campus that we've had about Montessori ... We're not prepared to move forward on something until we feel strongly that we have the [structure] and professional development in place. We are not willing to put forward a program that will fail and be unsuccessful, but that is definitely in the plans and in the works, and we are proceeding accordingly."

Trustee Miguel Solis, whose district includes Mount Auburn, says he agonized over the Mata/Mount Auburn decision. Shortly after he'd been elected to the board in November 2013, he'd become concerned that Mount Auburn seemed to have been left out of the conversation around Mata. When Fraley came to the board with the STEAM plan, he was concerned by its lack of specificity. It seemed like it was focused more on providing political cover for the Montessori program at Mata than on doing right by Mount Auburn students.

But then Solis went to a community meeting with the Mount Auburn parents and listened as Martinez, the principal, pitched them on STEAM. He was impressed. She was enthusiastic and seemed genuinely committed to the STEAM model. "She was the one that sold it," Solis says.

Technically, the item that came before trustees for a vote in April of 2014 had nothing to do with STEAM or Montessori. It was merely a grade reconfiguration, the addition of kindergarten through third grade at Mata and fourth and fifth grades at Mount Auburn. Though the academic programs and the grade changes were so closely tied as to be inseparable, Morath, in the midst of a contentious board debate, relied on the technical distinction to frame the changes not as a kowtow to Lakewood and Stonewall but as a matter of justice for Mount Auburn students.

Of the schools in the Woodrow Wilson feeder pattern, Morath said, Mount Auburn had the "highest concentration of low-income students that we have. And yet what we do with our lowest income children? We force them to go through an extra grade transition that we do not force any of the other students in East Dallas [or DISD] to do."

The harm was self-evident. "If you look at the academics of Mt. Auburn and of the school that it feeds into, Mata, and compare that to the academics of the other schools in the Woodrow Wilson feeder pattern, it is the lowest performing academic campus that we have," Morath said. "So the administration has come up with a plan to try to actually improve academic outcomes of the children who are in Mount Auburn Elementary right now. And for some reason this board has decided that what we want to do is we want to stop that from happening, we want to delay that happening for a year and I'm not sure why we want to do that." The board was "delaying academic gains for these children," which "seems fundamentally harmful for the kids at Mount Auburn."

For his part, Solis says he believed that Fraley would follow through on the STEAM proposal. "I had no reason to believe they would not deliver," Solis says. He joined Morath and a majority of their colleagues in approving the changes at Mata and Mount Auburn.

By last summer, well before Mount Auburn's dismal test results were released, Solis had changed his mind. He visited in the spring of 2015 and asked to see the STEAM program in action. He says he was shown a pair of science classrooms but the school was indistinguishable from the one he'd visited the previous school year. No new technology or equipment to speak of, no specialized training for the teachers, no apparent tweaks to the curriculum. The evidence all pointed Solis to an inescapable conclusion: "We were sold a false bill of goods," he says.

Not long after Solis' visit, Martinez abruptly retired and was replaced by Michelle Hill, who had spent the previous two years at the helm of Stonewall Jackson — not that the switch produced any movement on STEAM. The PTA president-elect, just finishing her first year as a Mount Auburn parent, said in an email that she was unaware that Mount Auburn was supposed to be a STEAM campus. "I was never told of anything to date, nor do I know what you are talking about," she wrote.

Solis says he intends to pressure Superintendent Michael Hinojosa (his predecessor, Mike Miles, was in charge during the Mata debate) and the campus' new leadership to follow through on the STEAM promise. He's also asked for potential explanations for why Mount Auburn's test scores suddenly became so dire.

He has no reason to believe that whatever broke at Mount Auburn can't be fixed. In addition, DISD is now being much more careful about how it does Mata-like choice schools, minimizing the likelihood of a Mount Auburn sequel. But the fixes, if they come, will arrive two or more years after DISD sold parents a false vision, not just of continued competence but of Mount Auburn preparing their kids for careers as scientists, computer programmers, engineers.  Those are two years Mount Auburn students won't get back.
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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson