In the heart of the Lake Street corridor in Minneapolis, a micro Montessori school called Lirio has made a temporary home inside the educational wing of Christ Church International. Next door sits the historic Sears building, an economic hub for the city before it closed in 1994. What once was a predominantly affluent neighborhood struggled through the years, but the community is working to turn itself around. Along with a new Midtown Global Market that serves up international food and incubates startup businesses, local leaders, particularly those of color, are working to revitalize the neighborhood. Lirio teacher-leaders Maya Soriano and Susana Rodriguez are thrilled to play a part in that effort, and say the neighborhood is the perfect setting for their two-way Spanish immersion school, one of the first three Wildflower schools in Minneapolis. And with a waiting list only months after their opening, it seems the community agrees.
Maya recently sat down to talk about Lirio, which opened in August with 27 students, and what make the school special.
What is your experience with Montessori?
I was an elementary school teacher for seven years; I started in Los Angeles, and I moved back to my hometown of Minneapolis to teach at a dual-language public charter school. As my career evolved, I started having a lot of concerns about the opportunity gap I was seeing, especially for students of color. It was really challenging and disheartening to get those students to be on grade level with a traditional curriculum.
When my son got to be preschool age, I was investigating different educational methods and stumbled across Montessori. I fell in love with the way students were honored with integrity and dignity, and I believed it was so important for their development. At the same time, I knew the kids I was teaching at the time wouldn’t have the same opportunities to attend a Montessori school like my own son. That’s when I left the classroom and earned a master’s in Montessori education from the Montessori Training Center of Minnesota. During that time, I came across Wildflower, which was in its infancy. I ended up working at the Foundation for a while and helped them in the early stages of their startup in Minnesota.
During my time teaching at the public charter school, I met Susana, who is also certified to teach primary grades Montessori. She grew up a few blocks from our school site and is a phenomenal instructor. Our partnership and vision has been critical in taking the leap to open a school.
What does it mean that Lirio is a Spanish two way dual-language immersion school?
At Lirio, this means that staff speak in Spanish with the children 100 percent of the time. We are a two-way program, which means we serve two populations of speakers – native Spanish and non-native Spanish speakers. About 60 percent of our students are native Spanish speakers, and the remainder speak English, Somali, or another language. We have a handful of students who are trilingual. In my case, I am Korean-born but was adopted and raised in the Twin Cities. In college, I traveled abroad in Guatemala and fell in love with the community and the Spanish language. My host family and my teacher, we all became really close. From then on, all my professional career has been focused on the Latinx community.
In most two-way dual immersion models, the earlier you are in your elementary program, the more immersed you are in the target language — in our case, Spanish. And then, the closer you get to middle school, the breakdown is closer to 50/50. Since we teach 3- to 6-year-olds, we have all our instruction in Spanish. The idea is that from here, students will move on to Spanish-speaking programs. But even for families who are not following a Spanish-speaking track, research shows that if you can fully immerse students in a language and get them proficient in that language, it can then translate to other languages.
When the students are encouraged to use Spanish all the time, they quickly become familiar with the common phrases, such as, “Can I have milk?”, “Please pass the napkin,” and so on. It’s amazing, without the inhibitions adults have, kids can follow context clues and instructions without any prior knowledge of the language. Montessori really works really well in this setting, too, because you don’t need a ton of language skills to be able to engage with the sensorial materials, like the pink tower (an iconic Montessori item made up of painted wooden blocks meant for stacking), for example. Students can enter an activity at different points and they can still feel successful and engage in the work.
What is the driving force behind your work at Lirio?
When I worked in a public dual-immersion elementary school, even though we were speaking Spanish a greater percentage the time, I still found that the native English speakers, most of whom came from more affluent backgrounds, were progressing faster in both English and Spanish. The achievement gap was growing because those native Spanish speakers hadn’t been getting the support they needed during their early childhood education.
In order to dismantle that inequity and make Montessori accessible to the community, 64 percent of our families are fully subsidized and do not pay tuition. We do this through a combination of tuition and public funding. Our preschool students are part of a tuition-based program, subsidized by public and private scholarships for families who request the support, and our kindergarten class is part of public charter school in MInnesota, which means we receive funding through the state public education system.
Both Susana and I feel very strongly that this combination of dual-immersion and Montessori is a game-changer for educational inequity. There is inherently a social justice and anti-racism component to what we do. Authentic Montessori supports children, and it works. Having access to something like that is critical, particularly for historically underserved students.
How did you decide on the name “Lirio”?
In Spanish, “lirio” means “lily.” We took our inspiration from Mexican-born artist, Diego Rivera, whose paintings frequently feature calla lilies. When it came time to create a logo for our school, it was important to us to work with someone from our local community, and so we found a recent college graduate who identifies as Latinx, and you can see Rivera’s influence in the logo she created for us.
Learn more about Lirio Montessori School at https://www.facebook.com/LirioMontessori/.