Finding the Sun, Preparing the Soil:

A Look Back at The Wildflower Foundation’s Year

Introduction

Wildflower Schools offer beautiful, child-centered learning environments that foster the growth and connectedness of teachers, children and families as they follow life’s unfolding journey. Our schools use time-tested, research-supported Montessori methods in one-room, neighborhood-nested shopfronts combined with promising new ideas in parent engagement, intentional student diversity, teacher empowerment and data-driven instruction. Like wildflowers, they spread naturally, taking root in diverse settings and reflecting the uniqueness of their surroundings. We aspire to give all children and families the opportunity to choose a school like Wildflower.

The 2016-2017 school year was an exciting time for us—a year of substantial growth, and a year in which we developed important new tools that help Wildflowers sprout and thrive. Our progress, as always, was guided by input and leadership from teacher leaders, community members, and families throughout the Wildflower network. We turned many of our ideas into tangible programs and technologies that will help transform the educational experiences of children, teachers, and schools. We learned and discovered. We witnessed the power of the Wildflower model to contribute to the development of healthier, more equitable communities. In short, we focused on observing, preparing the environment, and then helping the right seeds take root.

We head into 2018 as a network of 13 micro Montessori schools led by teachers, together serving approximately 200 children, ages six weeks to 17 years in Massachusetts, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island.

We also spent the year helping seeds settle into Minnesota soil, which will result in our first schools opening this coming spring. Here are the steps we took over the last year to get here, and the growth we expect to build on as Wildflower Schools spread to more communities.

Our Schools

Look for a sunny spot.

New Communities

Wildflower seeds fly everywhere, but it takes the right environment for an entire field of wildflowers to grow. In the same way, a cluster of Wildflower schools requires enthusiastic local leadership and support. Every week, we hear from people wanting a Wildflower School in their community—a Montessori teacher seeking to lead her own school, a parent wanting to provide a nurturing place for his child and his neighbors’ children, or an engaged community member who’s heard about this model’s transformative potential.

Engaging with these early expressions of interest in starting Wildflower Schools in new cities continues to push our thinking on the role we can play in supporting growth. We’re using the challenge to develop creative processes whereby individuals and organizations in different geographies engage with us in a way that requires less high-touch guidance, enables early ownership, and facilitates organic growth.  

Community Exploration Tool

This year, we developed a Community Exploration Tool, a rubric completed by individuals or teams interested in starting a Wildflower Hub of schools. With our support, people use this tool to understand key factors that contribute to Wildflower’s success on the ground, including: a community’s existing legal and financial mechanisms for enabling autonomous schools at different age levels, the adequacy of those mechanisms to enable access to children of mixed income levels, local philanthropic support, the existence of interested teachers, indications of parent demand, and ability to contribute to the Wildflower’s progress nationally. Completing the rubric helps potential founders and community members on the ground understand what is required to nurture Wildflower schools. Once completed, the rubric helps us at the Foundation and our local partners understand whether the environment is fertile ground for Wildflowers.

Site Entrepreneurs

If the community environment seems promising, then the Foundation works with local funders and engaged community members to further prepare for the emergence of Wildflower schools. One of our first steps is to hire a local site entrepreneur to develop partnerships, invite teachers into an exploration of Wildflower’s alignment with their own values and purpose, support school starts, channel community support, and more. From funding to sharing established processes and software tools, we begin the journey of supporting local groups as they open Wildflower schools in their communities.

Site entrepreneurs are now exploring growth in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Colorado, and Puerto Rico. Foundation staff in the San Francisco Bay Area, New Jersey, New York City and Asheville, North Carolina, are in the early stages of growth exploration in their communities.

Enrich the soil.

The Wildflower Foundation

Good soil makes for healthy flowers, and well prepared environments support the healthy development of children. For the same reasons, we strive to provide a nourishing and supportive environment to our teacher-leaders and to everyone in the Wildflower community.

In Summer 2016 we successfully spun out of the MIT Media Lab and formed an independent 501c3 organization, The Wildflower Foundation, to support and facilitate the spread of the school network.

Headquartered in Minneapolis, the Foundation is working to create an organizational culture and philosophy that brings the Montessori tenets that shape our classrooms to the ways we operate as adults. At Wildflower, we are all empowered to make the decisions that matter in our own work, we give and get support from each other, we’re transparent about what and how we’re doing, and we’re accountable to each other for results.

We value the connectedness among all things and the journey we are all on to grow into what we are meant to be. Our experience is that connectedness and growth don’t happen by accident. They arise as a natural consequence of other commitments – to cultivate and maintain awareness about ourselves and our surroundings, to act with kindness toward ourselves and others, and to become independent and foster independence in others. In much the same way that Maria Montessori described the natural state of children in a well-functioning classroom community as normalized, we are working to create a community in which all of us act in ways that reflect our most authentic human tendencies.

While each Wildflower school is independent, all schools are united by nine principles.

Together, they shape our approach and help inform our decisions.

Our Principles

An Authentic Montessori Environment

Providing a peaceful, mixed-age, child-directed environment.

A Teacher-Led School

Committed to remaining small, non-hierarchical and responsive to the needs of children.

A Shopfront Setting

A neighborhood-nested school committed to working in partnership with the surrounding community to create an environment that is healthier for children.

A Laboratory for Innovation

Committed to exploring new ideas and grounding our practice in the scientific principles of open inquiry, thoughtful reflection and continuous improvement.

A Seamless Learning Community

Blurring the boundaries of home and school.

A Commitment to Equity

Working to create diverse, inclusive learning environments that work for justice as the foundation of peace.

An Attention to Beauty

Cultivating a deep beauty in all things - in the design, culture, and artistic expression within our school environments; in our interactions with one another; and in our relationship with ourselves.

A Focus on Nature

Emphasizing the nonseparation between nature and human nature.

A Decentralized Network

Advancing an ecosystem of independent Wildflower schools that mutually support one another, and sharing our approaches openly for the benefit of all children.

We know that for teacher leaders who want to be part of the Wildflower network, translating these principles into a living school is no small task. So, we’ve spent the year developing a suite of tools to support opening and running a Wildflower school.

Our tools include an online school startup toolkit, helpful guides for designing and building out new schools, tools to streamline the student application and enrollment processes, and more.

Ensure access to water.

Public Funding

The soil can be right, the sun can be shining, but without water, wildflowers won’t spread. For Wildflower schools, public and private funding are an equally critical input.

Public funding is what allows Wildflower schools to sustainably serve families who otherwise could not afford a tuition-based Montessori school. Though education has traditionally relied on public funding, few existing funding mechanisms are designed to support the operation of intentionally diverse, one-room autonomous schools. A critical component of our work at the Foundation is identifying public funding streams and making them accessible to Wildflower schools.

Massachusetts

One example of this work is the Birth to 3rd Grade Scholarship Pilot that several of our Cambridge schools are participating in, which allows low-income families in Cambridge access to the very highest quality programs for 3 and 4 year olds. Another is a partnership established by Zinnia Montessori with the City of Haverhill, in which a public-private partnership directly funds full scholarships for many deserving families.

We submitted a prospectus for the creation of a Massachusetts charter school as well, but we’re going to need to wait until next year to complete a full application. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education frequently slows down first-time applicants, and not surprisingly, they had questions about some of the outside-the-box aspects of Wildflower’s approach: how we’ll ensure strong academic results in a child-driven instructional model and how we’ll fulfill our governance and compliance obligations despite giving broad autonomy to teachers operating in separate one-room sites. We’re working with the department and other Massachusetts advisors to submit a full application in the coming cycle for a Fall 2019 start.

Puerto Rico

Wildflower and a local nonprofit, Instituto Nueva Escuela (INE), worked together to create the first Wildflower Schools in Puerto Rico in 2015 – Girasol, serving grades 9-12 in Juan Domingo, and Flamboyan in the Luis Llorens Torres public housing project, serving toddlers (age 15-36 months), followed by a second toddler program, Alhelí, in Rio Piedras in 2016. In each school, the district pays teacher salaries while INE covers the cost of a trained assistant. Wherever possible, the schools seek out rent-free space from partner municipalities.

Given the impact of Hurricane Maria, we initially put our plans on hold for the short-term as we worked to ensure our teachers, students, and families were safe, with their basic needs met. Now, though, our local team is beginning to think about the education-related recovery effort and what new efforts are most needed. Their sense is that in many places, Wildflower schools can be part of the immediate improvement efforts: where programs did not exist or have been wiped out, new programs are needed, and Wildflower’s small scale and flexible placement are ideal for the current environment. Already, we have three projects in front of us – an infant program to be created in Rio Piedras in the same neighborhood as Alhelí, an as-yet-unnamed infant program to be created in Caguas, and the rebuilding of Girasol, which was destroyed by the hurricane.

Minnesota

The network’s first charter school, in Minnesota, has been approved and authorized to open up to 13 sites serving up to 390 students in the next five years, thanks to state funding. Teacher leaders and our site entrepreneur are figuring out how to design our first charter governance structure in a way that aligns with Wildflower’s model and meets public accountability expectations. In the meantime they are scouting sites and engaging parents.

We know that where we locate our schools will be critical to realizing our vision of intentionally diverse school communities. As the network expands into Minnesota, we are partnering with the University of Minnesota Center for Urban and Regional Affairs to create detailed, neighborhood-specific maps of the Twin Cities that overlay neighborhood assets such as green spaces, libraries, and access to public transportation, with demographic information and the locations of existing Montessori or high-performing schools. These maps help our teachers identify ideal sites for building intentionally diverse schools. This data-based initial understanding of the community’s dynamics provides a foundation for the next step: a design process built around the preferences and needs of families residing in the selected community.

Invite a diversity of forms and types.

Equity

The strength, resilience and beauty of an ecosystem lies in its variety – the more types of plants and animals, the more capacity it has to adapt and thrive. At Wildflower, we are not looking to systematically create identical schools – we want the unique attributes of our teachers, students, families, and communities to shine through.

One important way we encourage this is through our intentional focus on diversity, equity and inclusion in our recruiting and teacher development efforts. While the overall community of Montessori teachers is predominantly white, we recently launched a new fellowship program to identify promising current and future Montessori teachers from historically underrepresented or disadvantaged backgrounds and support them on the journey towards creating and leading their own school. This includes supporting participants in acquiring Montessori credentials, developing their capabilities as lead guides, learning the specific work of administering a Wildflower school, and, depending on their goals and capacity, helping them plan and prepare to launch their own dream school. In parallel, we have also recruited more ethnically diverse staff and significantly tilted our internal dialog and priorities toward equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Wildflower operates preschools, elementary and secondary schools that use a blend of tuition and public subsidies as well as schools that are entirely tuition-free. Last year, across all Wildflower schools in Massachusetts and Puerto Rico, approximately 52% of students attended for free or received tuition assistance. All of our students in Puerto Rico attend for free, comprising of 33% of our total student population. Of independent tuition-funded schools, 29% of students received assistance. Of the 163 students enrolled last year, approximately 4% were African American, 36% were Hispanic or Latino, and 12% were Asian American or Pacific Islander.  

The initial steps we’ve made to transition our existing schools to be more intentionally diverse greatly inform our work as we create new schools. Over the course of the last year, our community has taken important steps to make our schools accessible to more students and to ensure that we are building the necessary support structures and engaging in the important reflective work that will allow our schools to create supportive, welcoming and high-quality classrooms for all families.

Network-wide learning inspired us to create several tools and events, including an Embracing Equity learning series for Wildflower teacher leaders and foundation partners and an information night on equity for current parents. Hubs are also providing ongoing training and engagement on equity for all potential and current teacher leaders throughout their journeys.

Embracing Equity

Foster a supportive ecosystem.

Innovation

In nature, every participant in an ecosystem contributes to the success of the entire system – worms turn up soil, decaying organic material fertilizes, bees and birds spread pollen and seeds. Each is independent, and by playing an essential role in the success of the entire system, also interdependent.

At Wildflower, we see our network as a reflection of a living ecosystem. Each school is autonomous – charting its own course based on the needs of its children, families, teacher-leaders and neighbors. Independence enables innovation and localization. As a group, the schools and school support organizations, including The Wildflower Foundation, are interdependent. Teacher-leaders from one school provide support and encouragement to teacher-leaders at other schools. Children graduate from one school and move on to another. Schools articulate needs that school support organizations meet. Interdependence allows the ecosystem to do things that no participant could do alone.

At the heart of Wildflower’s approach is an expectation that cannot be met alone: each individual teacher leader serves as a lead classroom guide, an admissions director, a business manager and a principal. While most schools create specialized roles that take administrative decision-making away from teachers, Wildflower schools rely on software utilities developed by The Wildflower Foundation to make administrative tasks manageable without leaving the classroom. Teacher leaders have asked us to prioritize developing utilities in three domains: admissions, enrollment, and financial management.  Our work with prospective Teacher leaders has also informed the development of our School Startup Roadmap. 

The Foundation’s technology and engineering team have developed time-saving solutions that schools can choose to deploy:

School Startup

Starting a school can be a daunting, even prohibitive, task. To help prospective Teacher Leaders and Site Entrepreneurs, we’ve made great progress on what we call our School Startup Utility. This utility bundles the necessary tools Teacher Leaders need to manage the pipeline of tasks for creating a school – from expressing initial interest to building a school website to enrolling students and opening doors. The improvements in our process enable Teacher Leaders to move through our School Startup Roadmap in a way that’s efficient, self-service and open source.

Admissions

Utilities (i.e. software programs) let parents apply online and schedule classroom observations and interviews, saving teacher leaders two hours each week during admissions seasons.

Enrollment

Our enrollment utility allows parents to digitally fill out and submit all enrollment forms to schools. Once admitted, each child can be enrolled into a central record-keeping system. A standard enrollment contract is among the legal documents now available to every school. An attendance utility also saves teachers an hour every week.

Financial Management

With and for teacher leaders, the Foundation tech team is developing an extensive financial platform that includes budget, bookkeeping and accounting tools, a combined administrative and record-keeping platform, and a loan management system.

In addition to exciting administrative tools, we are using technology to make Montessori schooling itself more effective. We do this not by applying technology to alter the student experience, but to enhance teacher leaders’ capacity to observe their students – so that we can bridge the gap between data-driven instructional practice and a child-centered learning environment. We’ve made important progress this year in developing the hardware and software sensing technologies that will bring this to life.

The Montessori method holds careful student observation and note-taking as vital, but it’s the rare teacher who can observe students and record notes as consistently or as comprehensively as they would like. So, with our partners at MIT, we initiated development of sensors that can unobtrusively record how each child in a classroom spends their time each day, along with software to visualize the collected data for teacher leaders.

Our team returned to three Cambridge schools in early 2017 to pilot the sensors in the classroom and record and visualize timing, duration, and intensity of students’ interactions with their teachers, with each other, and with classroom materials. The interface for analyzing the data is integrated with Transparent Classroom, a Montessori record-keeping company with whom we finalized a partnership to develop the next generation of Montessori learning management tools, including integration with our sensor technology. In early classroom pilots of the technology, almost all the teachers felt that the technology would be an excellent tool for capturing insights that may otherwise have been lost.

Not all of the resources provided by the Foundation are electronic.

Teacher leaders also have access to coaches in Montessori pedagogy, diversity and inclusion, and school operations. We’re also happy to report that teacher leaders attended and presented at a variety of professional development conferences in the last year. Finally, teacher leaders are connected to each other within their hubs for mutual support and accountability. We’re excited to see how connections develop across hubs as Wildflower grows into more communities.

Watch us grow.

Conclusion

Though we still have a lot of work to do on our administrative support utilities and we haven’t turned our attention to marketing yet, we’re already experiencing the powerful draw this approach has for teachers. Already, we have more than 165 teacher leaders exploring the possibility of creating a Wildflower school and interested in joining the Wildflower network. Over the last year we have developed a structured process to support teacher leaders on their journey to social entrepreneurship and to facilitate alignment between teacher leaders’ visions and Wildflower’s principles.

The stages include:

1) Early exploration, in which potential teacher leaders learn about Wildflower, tell us in writing about themselves and the ideas that brought them to Wildflower, and have several conversations with current teacher leaders;

2) Planning, in which teacher leaders access resources and coaching from Wildflower to develop detailed plans for their school, and when the time is right, sign Wildflower’s affiliation agreement and become a member of the Wildflower network; and

3) Startup, in which Wildflower experts help teacher leaders incorporate as an independent nonprofit organization, select real estate and sign leases, hire contractors, approve designs, apply for licenses, purchase Montessori materials, recruit students and more generally get ready to open their school.

Right now, 7 teachers are in the planning phase and 12 more are far along in their exploration and will be ready to begin planning soon.

Provided with the right mix of sun, water, good soil, and a supportive ecosystem, a handful of wildflowers can grow into a field of beautiful flowers. Similarly we’ve found that Wildflower schools beget more schools, as teachers, parents, and civic leaders learn about our approach.

We have been particularly delighted by and thankful for the philanthropic interest in and support of our work. Since our inception at the MIT Media Lab, Wildflower has raised more than $10 million from foundations and individuals to fund the formation of new schools, the creation of the tools and resources you are reading about in this report, and the development of many additional supports. We’re especially thankful to those who have contributed leadership gifts to Wildflower since our start, including Arthur Rock and Toni Rembe Rock, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Charter School Growth Fund, the Graves Foundation, the James Walton Fund, NewSchools Venture Fund, the Omidyar Network, the One8 Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Strategic Grant Partners and the Walton Family Foundation.  

The process of starting an organization to nurture a network of schools isn’t revolutionary. Wildflower’s core model is, though: tiny schools, governed and replicated through organic growth – following an invisible inner drive, the way wildflowers spread through a meadow.

We’re learning every step of the way, and we’re committed to sharing what we’re learning with others. Among other places, we share on Wildflower’s redesigned website and on the blog we launched this past year, called Field Notes.

Come along with us. There are seeds everywhere, looking to take root in the right environment.