Institutional Commitment to Civic Education: Public Montessori Secondary Schools

By Katie Dulaney | Lakewood Montessori School

Even as we hold schools increasingly accountable for student achievement, we rarely seem to judge schools for their performance in citizenship preparation, an inauspicious “accountability gap” for a democracy.

-Michael Johanek and John Puckett, “The State of Civic Education” (2005)

Education leaders across the political spectrum – from Michelle Rhee to Diane Ravitch – have championed or renounced the academic accountability that increasingly rests upon America’s schools. Sadly, in our focus on academic attainment, we often forget the civic side of education.

This is unfortunate. Political socialization theorists find that students are most likely to form sincere ties to their polity between the age of fourteen and their mid-twenties. As such, the health of our democracy relies to no small extent upon secondary schools as they prepare students for effective political participation – or not. Such preparation involves not only knowledge (from civics and American history), but also “[the cultivation of] the skills and virtues of deliberative citizenship,” as Amy Gutmann argues in her book Democratic Education (1999). Gutmann goes on to say that “schools ought to teach the skills and virtues of democratic deliberation within a social context.” Ideally, then, America’s schools should be concerned with the development of an individual democratic disposition and the habit of substantive participation in a functioning community.

In this essay, I seek to illustrate ways in which the Montessori philosophy and practice inherently provide the individual and communal elements required by this high standard of civic education.

Maria Montessori’s Philosophy

Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was an Italian physician who brought her scientific training to the field of education. She developed a unique, student-centric philosophy of education around which she opened a childcare center in 1900, welcoming mostly low-income, inner city students who struggled in traditional classrooms. Philosophy and practice reinforced one another as she observed her students in community.

A central tenet of Montessori’s philosophy was her belief in four planes of development: infancy, childhood, adolescence, and maturity. Although her legacy is usually associated with children aged six through twelve, her philosophy extended to adolescents as well. She believed that both infancy and adolescence were times of great creation: the former preoccupied with the creation of a person, the latter with the creation of an adult.

Montessori called the adolescent’s maturation into a socially independent person “valorization.” Simply put, valorization is the process through which adolescents realize their purpose and their ability to effect change in the world. Montessori secondary schools are therefore charged with this important task.

The Montessori tradition holds that honoring the development of each individual member of a given community naturally benefits the larger society. Marta Donahoe, the Director of the Cincinnati Montessori Teacher Education Program, put it this way: “When we all do better, we all do better.” Secondary Montessori programs therefore display an “institutional commitment” to developing democratic dispositions in a way that traditional, comprehensive schools often fail to do.

Case Study: Lakewood Montessori Middle School

I teach in a Montessori secondary school and offer it as a case study in civic education.

Lakewood Montessori is a public, magnet school serving grades 6-8 in Durham, North Carolina. It operates on a lottery system. Lakewood’s student body is never more than three hundred students, or one hundred in each grade. Students from Durham’s two magnet elementary Montessori schools are given priority admission, but between 20% and 50% of each entering class come from non-Montessori elementary schools.

As a magnet school, Lakewood provides busing all over the city, which results in a diverse student composition. Approximately a third of our students are White, a third Black, and a third Latino. During the 2013-2014 school year, 48% of our students qualified for free and reduced lunch (64.79% of Durham’s K-12 student population qualified for the same assistance). Lakewood’s twelve core teachers have been, or are in the process of becoming, licensed by the American Montessori Society. Thus, the educational experience I describe at Lakewood is representative of any licensed public or private Montessori secondary program in the country.

Lakewood expresses the Montessori philosophy in the school’s three pillars: academics, community, and self. Each component is equally prized and mutually reinforcing. Whereas students in many traditional middle schools are divided into “teams,” a term which connotes competition, Lakewood’s students are placed in “communities,” a term intentionally chosen to signify collaboration. Each community is assigned two teachers. A maximum of fifty students is assigned to each community and aside from electives, communities spend the entire day together. In order to acclimate new Montessori students to Lakewood’s routine, 6th grade students have their own communities. 7th and 8th graders, however, have all of their classes together. No matter the grade level, each community spans the full range of abilities.

(Lakewood) Montessori and the Adolescent

As its pillars suggest, Lakewood strives to help adolescents grow across multiple domains. As students approach valorization, the three pillars should converge; that is, the mature graduate of Lakewood realizes that “community” cannot stand independent of “self,” and “self” depends on one’s ability to reason critically. As students develop and realize their individual abilities, they also nurture Gutmann’s democratic disposition.

Lakewood’s rituals and practices support this process. One common practice is the Socratic Seminar, which happens in all core classes and ranges in topic – from the low numbers of girls pursuing STEM careers, to literature about the Jim Crow South. In seminars, students are trained to build upon one another’s thoughts, to agree or disagree with statements rather than with people, and to pose their own questions in a collegial spirit. Teachers facilitate, but students converse. In my classes, seminars often end with more questions than answers. My students ran out of time while debating whether or not there was a hero in To Kill a Mockingbird. We didn’t reach any firm conclusions, but I heard several students still discussing the topic three weeks later.

Reflection is another path to individual development. First, students use a daily leadership rubric to reflect on their individual contributions to the community – whether in the form of academic growth, behavior, or teamwork. Leadership rubrics are turned in to teachers each day, which encourages a fluid and consistent dialogue between teachers and students.

Lakewood’s communities also host student-led conferences twice a year in which students share about their learning experiences with their parent(s) or guardian(s). The students manage the conferences entirely, and are encouraged to assess their own strengths, weaknesses, and areas of potential growth out loud.

Lastly, students practice “solo time”: the school schedule allots fifteen to twenty minutes each day for students to silently unwind, calm themselves, and practice mindfulness. Solo time reminds students that they cannot be contributing members of the community until they first take care of themselves as individuals.

Students also experience their significance to the larger group in restoring the classroom at the end of each school day. They clean the floors, return desks to their proper places, water classroom plants, restart computers, close windows, return supplies to closets, take recycling out, and turn off the lights. Each individual member sees that he or she is a necessary part of the group, and students come to regard the classroom as their space. My students facilitate this end-of-the-day routine; it has been my observation that mutual accountability fosters a healthy pride.

Valorization of the personality is a lofty enough goal that when met, adolescents will also have developed a democratic disposition.

(Lakewood) Montessori and the Community

To meet the high standard of civic education described in the opening section, secondary students must also foster collective deliberation. Lakewood’s students do this by participating in regular, student-led “community meetings.” These gatherings provide time for peers and teachers to share relevant announcements; acknowledge one another for the good they’ve seen from each other throughout the week; discuss happenings in the community that need attention; and reflect on a selected quotation, story, or idea. Each community meeting opens with the students’ answering a “greeting,” a question that gets students talking about their preferences, histories, and/or lives outside of school. The students take turns facilitating different roles throughout the year. In my own classroom, I have seen confident students model effective leadership to their peers, and shy students gradually assume leadership positions. I have also witnessed students process difficult topics such as the fatal shooting of three young Muslims in the neighboring town of Chapel Hill; the necessity of lock-down drills at school; the ways in which we understand one another’s learning and social differences; and the changing face of our community as eighth graders prepare to enter high school. Although not every meeting involves such weighty concerns, having an intentional and regular space to air these questions, thoughts, and concerns, is inherent in the Montessori way.

Inter-age grouping also highlights community cohesion. It is typical for 7th and 8th graders to spend two years in the same community. Students are defined neither by their ages nor their abilities. Children of professors sit next to children of non-citizens; my student who reads at an 11th grade level laughs daily with a classmate who is autistic. In such ways, students at Lakewood learn to be a part of an all-inclusive community.

Within these all-inclusive communities, Lakewood’s teachers emphasize team building and social growth, primarily through group initiatives and field studies. Group initiatives are weekly activities and games that exist for the purpose of reflecting on group dynamics. Teachers typically facilitate group initiatives, but students complete the challenges and games. This forces students to manage and rely on one another. Group initiatives are always followed by group processing, where students engage in a seminar-style discussion about what worked well; what difficulties were encountered; what, if anything, was learned; and how the community might apply what they’ve learned in the group initiative in the classroom. The parallels between classroom experiences and group initiatives often generate a common language that reminds students that they belong.

Field studies allow students to engage in hands-on learning experiences outside of the school environment. Our largest field study is a three-day wilderness trip referred to as Erdkinder, an experience Maria Montessori specifically imagined for the adolescent. Lakewood holds Erdkinder at a North Carolina beach or at a local river. Students study the ecology of the area, spend time alone in nature, live in community for the entire three days, and develop practical life skills. For many students, this is their first overnight trip away from home. Because Erdkinder takes place at the beginning of each school year, it serves as a wonderful bonding experience for Lakewood’s communities that students discuss throughout the year.


Montessori schools provide a climate that encourages individual growth and a spirit of collective deliberation. Lakewood’s graduates perform well academically at every high school in the Durham area. Their high schools report back that our Montessori students have developed firm habits of self that persist no matter their high school environment: these students know how to pace themselves, set their own boundaries, give voice to their thoughts, and uphold their responsibilities.

Our graduates have at times felt bereft when they enter high schools that are invariably more individualistic. One alumna visited Lakewood earlier this year, as do many recent graduates. She shared with her teacher, Beth, “I miss the community.” Her high school was large, her classes with different students all day, and the emphasis on social growth was lacking.

Beth reminded this student of the task set before every Lakewood graduate: create the community you seek. “You know how,” Beth told her. “You learned how to foster community here.”

This statement resonated with the student and reflects the capacity of the Montessori philosophy and practice to cultivate democratic growth. When adolescents develop habits of individual and communal deliberation to the extent that it changes the very way they interact with the world, Gutmann’s charge has been met.


Works Cited:

Donahoe, Marta. “Hope for the Adolescent: Valorization of the Personality.” Cincinnati Montessori Secondary Teacher Education Program, 2010. Web.

Gutmann, Amy. “Preface to the Revised Edition.” Preface. Democratic Education. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999. Xi-Xiv.

Johanek, Michael C., and John Puckett. “The State of Civic Education: Preparing Citizens in an Era of Accountability.” Institutions of American Democracy: The Public Schools. Ed. Susan Fuhrman and Marvin Lazerson. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. 130-59.

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