How We Work at Wildflower

Every week we hear from teachers, parents and engaged community members who want to learn more about Wildflower Schools.  Below you’ll find some of our most frequently asked questions as well as ways you can get involved. These answers were written in a communal spirit with the input and advice of teacher-leaders and other partners at Wildflower.  We found a tension between the desire to present absolute answers and the desire to give teacher-leaders the space to create their own schools; this will be evident in some of our replies. We’re early in our journey and our answers will evolve over time as we continue to grow and learn.

Picture of two watercolor flowers one orange and one blue

Wildflower Schools

Can any school be a Wildflower school?

Wildflower is a community of very small Montessori schools that share certain values and operating norms and seek to live into a set of nine principles.  We’re developing a set of processes that help potential teacher-leaders explore the alignment between their own approach and these principles. This exploration is supported by teacher-leaders and other partners within the Wildflower community who offer assistance and advice.  An important aspect of the exploration process is determining and sharing how your school will implement Wildflower principles, values and norms.  Wildflower schools can operate in many settings – including as independent non-profits, charter schools, magnets and in-district. They can incorporate complementary educational strategies, such as language immersion or expanded social service offerings. Our schools range in age from infant through adolescence.

How big are Wildflower schools?

Wildflower schools are small, 1-2 room schools. At the moment, the smallest school serves ten toddlers and the largest school has two classrooms serving 39 children ranging in age from 3 to 10. We keep schools small to avoid the administrative complexities associated with coordinating the activities of many classrooms, and to ensure that teachers are able to express their vision in the design and operation of their own school. Very small schools encourage community and support between the families, teachers and children.

Do Wildflower schools have to be in a shop front?

Wildflower schools are living systems, independent and whole, and at the same time each is part of a larger system – a thriving community. Each Wildflower school seeks to be connected directly to the public life of its community, visually and physically. Most often, this happens by placing schools in shopfronts on public streets along which people regularly walk, in neighborhoods that include residential and commercial activity. In some communities, the ground floor of a residence might work as well – so long as it’s on a street with foot traffic, has windows that allow children to see out and passersby to see in, and is separated from living spaces in such a way that the children’s environment feels like it is connected to the public square. By contrast, Wildflower schools are not located in the private areas or away-from-the-street areas of a home, or in settings without foot traffic – such as deep within residential neighborhoods, on dead-end streets or in cul-de-sacs. Wildflower schools could be in garden apartments or second floor walkup locations, as long as they maintain visual and physical connection to the street, but they are not on high floors and they are not set deep within larger buildings. Wildflower schools are also not in strip malls, surrounded by only parking lots and other retail. As with all of our principles, sometimes Wildflower schools are set in locations that fully express what’s described here – while others are working toward this ideal. All of  this is in support of our value of connectedness.

Some teacher-leaders are opening “seedling” programs in a home (or other temporary space) before they open their full shopfront schools. This allows them to serve children sooner, immerse themselves in Wildflower practices, and have additional time to plan for their shopfront location. In-home programs can help introduce Wildflower to a new community. Our current thinking is to support the creation of seedling programs, as long as the intention is to transplant the seedling to a shopfront location within a few years.

Starting a School

Who can start a Wildflower school?

Wildflower schools are imagined, started and run by Montessori teachers. They develop the vision for the school, prepare the environment, guide the children in the classroom and assume administrative responsibilities. Wildflower provides tools and resources to prospective teacher- leaders to gauge their own alignment with Wildflower’s values, norms and principles, and self-assess their readiness to start and run a Wildflower school – all with the support and advice from current teacher-leaders and partners. Wildflower teachers-leaders cultivate a strong appreciation for the skills that support the development of high quality schools and that allow the process to be joyful and empowering rather than overwhelming and uncomfortable. Because Wildflower schools are all authentic Montessori schools of the highest quality, one important component of this process is determining whether you have the Montessori training and experience necessary for this undertaking.

If you’re not a Montessori teacher but are interested in bringing a Wildflower School to your community:

  • Find a Montessori teacher to partner with and begin the process of self-assessing your readiness to start a Wildflower school
  • Complete Montessori training 
  • Talk to one of our Site Entrepreneurs about growing Wildflowers in your community by filling out this form

Some things to self-assess are:

  • Montessori foundations – Do I have a strong grounding in Montessori theory acquired through a high quality training program? Do I have strong classroom practices acquired through experience as a lead guide in an authentic Montessori environment?
  • Administrative/small business skills – Do I have skills in finance, marketing, working with parents, admissions?  If not, am I prepared to develop these skills with the support of Wildflower tools and coaching?
  • Equity – Have I explored my own racial/ethnic identity and how to celebrate the racial/ethnic identity of each child?  Do I know how to create a welcoming, intentionally diverse school community? Do I have relationships with families and leaders in the community in which I would like to work?
  • Teamwork – Do I have the skills and desire to lead a classroom and school with an equal Teacher Leader partner?
  • Non-hierarchy – What is my comfort in being part of an organization that operates within a non-hierarchical framework?
  • Wholeness – What is my comfort with talking openly about my feelings, tensions I might have with others and my personal growth opportunities? What is my comfort with bringing my whole self to a professional setting?

Do I have to have a co-founder? How do I find a co-founder?

Yes. Starting and running a school is a huge endeavor and the support of a partner is crucial. If you have someone you’ve always wanted to start a school with, great! If not, we’re happy to support you in finding a co-founder with a similar vision and approach. Ideally, partners have complementary skills. One may be a more experienced teacher while the other has a background running a small business. That said, Wildflower is a a non-hierarchical organization. While teacher-leaders may have different experiences and skill sets and those may translate into varying amounts of influence over specific decisions, both equally share the role of school leader.  

Before starting a school, teacher-leaders work together to determine that they have a shared vision and that they are a good match.  They divide the teaching and administrative roles within the school, with each responsible for making the decisions necessary to carry out their own roles. They seek advice and consent from each other but are not working to reach consensus – you can read more about the difference between consent and consensus here.  If one teacher-leader has the role of maintaining the school’s website and wants to make changes to the website, the changes are outlined for the partner and advice is sought, but the decision belongs to the owner of the role, so long as the solution is something the partner can live with. Advice may also be sought from teacher-leaders at other schools, Wildflower partners with expertise in marketing, parents and anyone who would be directly affected by the decision. In giving advice, members of the community reflect on how the change will further the school’s alignment with the Wildflower principles, values and norms.  

This type of partnership requires trust, honest sharing, vulnerability and an appreciation of mistakes as learning opportunities.  Wildflower teacher-leaders embrace the idea of “Montessori for adults” and strive to treat each other with the same respect, kindness and compassion that they bring to their work with children.

What does a decentralized network of schools look like in practice? What is a Wildflower hub?

Each school is an independent organization but sees itself as a node in a network, with substantial freedom in school-level decision-making.  Each school accesses the resources of the network when those resources are useful to them but is not required to use any template, tool, utility, etc. Reciprocally, each school also sees itself as accountable to its neighbor schools, the broader Wildflower community and the development of new Wildflower schools.

For most Wildflower schools, an independent organization means a legally separate non-profit corporation, though schools using charter and district governance models or operating under in-home licenses may have a different legal structure that aims for the same form of independence within a decentralized network.

We refer to geographic groupings of schools as hubs. A hub is a collection of schools operating within a defined geographic area in which schools face a similar licensing and regulatory environment and across which there is a critical mass of common funders.  We currently have hubs in Massachusetts, Puerto Rico and Minnesota. Active school planning is occurring in Colorado, the San Francisco Bay Area, New York, New Jersey and North Carolina. We are expecting hubs to develop in Indiana and Washington, DC in the next few years.  Each hub has a site entrepreneur; the entrepreneur lays the groundwork for a new hub by raising funds to start schools, developing an understanding of the regulatory atmosphere, partnering with school systems and other local institutions and meeting prospective Wildflower teacher-leaders to help them consider the possibility of starting a Wildflower school.    

As the number of schools in a hub increases, the schools subdivide geographically into pods.  The nine Massachusetts schools have subdivided into three pods.

The schools within a pod (or small hub) meet 3-4 times a month, enjoy each other’s community, and share advice around the needs and challenges within their schools and community.  Schools within a hub/pod may choose to engage in shared marketing opportunities, parent education, professional development opportunities and utilize an admissions system that includes a common application.  The schools within a hub or pod hold each other accountable for the quality and reputations of their schools. Most aspects of our pod or hub self-governance follows the same form as self-governance within a school – with an Advice Process, Conflict Resolution Process and a commitment to radical transparency.  For ensuring that roles and responsibilities are clearly assigned to members of the pod/hub, we also use a system called Holacracy – which we find makes the Roles and Responsibility process work better when more people are involved.

A few Wildflower schools are located outside of the current hubs; we think of these schools as being members of a “virtual hub”.  It is significantly more challenging to start and lead a school without the support of a local community of other teacher-leaders and schools. Teacher-leaders must lay all the groundwork that they might otherwise expect Wildflower to provide them, such as understanding licensing requirements, developing partnerships and securing funding. With respect to funding in particular, we have found that the challenge of raising money for a single school in a new community is no easier than raising money for a larger cluster of schools – and so we prioritize our efforts in places where we can see the possibility of supporting 8-10 teams of teacher-leaders to start schools over a period of 3-5 years.

Does Wildflower provide funding for starting a school?

The Wildflower Foundation raises money to provide startup grants to teacher-leader teams as they start new schools and offer low-interest loans that do not require personal guarantees from the teacher-leaders. Circumstances may vary from situation to situation, but as a general matter we aim to provide financial support with a bit more than half as loans and the remainder as grants. This is in alignment with our experience about how much money a school can pay back over a reasonable period of time while also paying its teacher-leaders well. We also typically ask teacher-leaders to take responsibility for a small share of the fundraising to start their school, most often 10% or less of the total startup costs. Most of the money we provide to new schools is raised in our hub communities and is restricted for use in those communities, so we generally are not able to provide financial support to new schools outside of our hubs. (There will sometimes be exceptions to this – for example, we might have a national grant available to start schools on Native American reservations – so please feel free to ask us if anything applies to your situation.) Over time, we will continue to grow the number of hubs and provide startup funds to schools in more communities.

What's the timeline for starting a school from start to finish?

This depends on the time you have to devote to school startup and preparation. Teacher-leaders who hold a separate full-time job as they start their schools report that it takes at least one full year while you’re employed and then 1 – 2 months of full time work right before the school opens.   Those devoting most or all of their time to starting their Wildflower school estimate a startup period of about nine months. Schools outside of established hubs generally have a longer startup period given that they are taking on additional local research and work without the support of a Site Entrepreneur and hub infrastructure.

What are the stages of Wildflower school startup?

Wildflower schools follow a structured process meant to support teacher-leaders’ journey to social entrepreneurship and to allow for Wildflower’s principles to fully emerge within the teacher-leaders’ vision.

The stages include:

Early exploration

in which potential teacher-leaders learn about Wildflower, begin the process of developing and refining their vision by writing about themselves and the ideas that brought them to Wildflower, and have several conversations with current teacher-leaders;

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

Startup

in which Wildflower supports teacher-leaders as they incorporate as an independent nonprofit organization, find a school space and sign a lease, hire contractors, approve designs, apply for licenses, purchase Montessori materials, recruit families and more generally get ready to open their school.

What concrete steps are involved in meeting Wildflower’s Equity principle?

Wildflower schools strive to ensure all children have the opportunity to receive a liberatory education for a future of equity and justice. This involves planning how you will make your school accessible to a diversity of families and children, create an inclusive environment, meet the varying needs of different children, and make justice and equity an explicit and intentional aspect of your school culture and curriculum. Each aspect of this is important, and doing these well requires different work for teacher-leaders of different backgrounds with different life experiences. If this work is new to you, we provide support. Embracing Equity is a social change agency dedicated to centering racial justice in education through racial and ethnic identity development, critical consciousness, and critical action. Wildflower offers this experiential opportunity to our Teacher-Leaders and to our foundation partners to support their own learning journey. Embracing Equity is open to everyone; you can register here.

Making your school accessible requires identifying a way to offer free or substantially subsidized tuition for families with financial need (generally through accessing some form of public funding), choosing a location with diversity in mind, and building relationships with people in the communities from which you intend to draw children and families. Creating an inclusive culture  requires exploring one’s own social identity in terms race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion and ability, and building comfort and skill with talking openly about issues of privilege and oppression in the context of individual identities; building empathy across these lines of difference; and learning about the foundations of inclusiveness. This personal development also serves as the foundation of creating a more equity-conscious curriculum that positively and accurately represents the culture, history and contributions of different groups of people, honestly reflects on past injustice, and connects to our modern society. Finally, while Montessori methods provide a strong foundation for meeting the unique needs of individual students, in our experience it also requires learning about common assets and challenges that are prevalent across different groups and communities, learning specific strategies associated with particular needs, and building out a network of partners and supports to meet individual needs. Wildflower provides support for teacher-leaders in each of these areas, in the form of explicit professional development, individualized support and coaching, and spaces for reflection alongside others with shared identity.

How does a parent bring a Wildflower school to their community?

Wildflower Schools are teacher-led because our experience is that teacher leadership is the pathway to schools that best serve the needs of children, families and teachers. Teacher leadership starts from the beginning – with a prospective teacher-leader leading the process of defining a school’s vision, finding a location, etc. Given this, if you are a parent excited to create a Wildflower school in your community, the first step is to find a prospective teacher whose leadership you can support. We avoid situations in which teacher leaders might feel like the employee of a group of parents or an administrator.

Running a School

How do you manage both teaching and administration as a Wildflower teacher-leader?

Most schools use a roles & responsibilities division system. Wildflower provides a basic template that schools individualize to the roles within their school.  Every role within the school’s teaching and administrative spheres is listed, from giving lessons to managing the website to taking out the trash. Teacher-leaders use a scale to determine how much they want to take on each role, how skilled they are at the role and areas where they want to develop new skills.  The teacher-leaders share the roles by assigning the clear preferences and negotiating through the roles that both want and that no one wants. The list is revisited annually.

Once the roles are clearly assigned, teacher-leaders can use the software utilities developed by The Wildflower Foundation to minimize the time they spend on administrative duties.  Within hubs, individual schools are supported and enriched by participating in weekly meetings with the other schools in the hub. In these meetings, hub level roles can be created to support the work of the schools.  Hubs also have coordinators who support activities such as scheduling observers, planning hub level family events and maintaining sub lists.

What supports does the Foundation offer to schools?

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 conventional schools create specialized roles that take administrative decision-making away from teachers, Wildflower schools rely on software utilities and tools developed by the Wildflower Foundation to make administrative tasks manageable without leaving the classroom. Our tools include:

  • A school startup toolkit, including budget templates, helpful guides for designing and building out your school, and marketing/branding supports.
  • An admissions utility that includes an online application and a tool for parents to schedule classroom observations and interviews online.
  • An enrollment utility that allows parents to digitally fill out and submit enrollment forms to schools.
  • A central record-keeping system that syncs admissions/enrollment information for each child.
  • A financial management platform that includes budget, bookkeeping, and accounting tools (this platform is in-development).
  • A suite of researched, recommended vendors for school operations needs ranging from business insurance to health benefits to payroll services.

We are also developing technology to make Montessori schooling itself more effective. We do this not by inserting technology or screens into the student experience, but by enhancing teacher-leaders’ capacity to observe their students using hardware and software sensing technologies.

Not all of the resources provided by the Foundation are electronic. Teacher-leaders have access to coaches in Montessori pedagogy, equity, diversity and inclusion, wholeness practice, leadership development, and school operations. Teacher-leaders are connected to each other within their hubs for mutual support, community and accountability.  

In established hubs, schools may apply for startup financing in the form of loans and grants from the Wildflower Foundation. Additional startup financing is raised by teacher-leaders through other philanthropic sources. In most cases, the Foundation’s funding capacity does not currently support schools outside of established hubs, but we hope to someday be able to provide funding for all Wildflower schools.

While schools outside of established hubs do not have as much coaching/peer support as those in hubs, they still have access to all of Wildflower’s tools and utilities, and they are full participants in the growing Wildflower network.

What are teacher-leader salaries? Do schools offer benefits?

As the leader of your own school, you (in partnership with your co-head of school and your board of directors) manage your school’s budget and set your salary. Wildflower strongly feels that teacher-leaders should be well compensated for their important work. Our school design and approach supports higher-than-average Montessori teacher salaries.

Schools strive to offer salaries between the typical teacher salary and administrator salary for a geographic area. Wildflower provides budget templates as a starting point to help you design your school’s financial model. Compensation and standard benefits are included in these templates, though Wildflower teacher-leaders have the autonomy to adjust compensation and benefit offerings according to their own vision for their schools. The Wildflower Foundation has established (optional) partnerships to allow schools to access health, dental, and retirement savings benefits.

What has Wildflower learned / how has Wildflower changed since the first school started?

The first Wildflower school opened as a MIT Media Lab research project in Cambridge, MA in 2014.  Parents and teachers found the model compelling and Sep Kamvar, the founder, envisioned a network of schools operating in a similar manner.

 Every school and geographic hub of schools has a unique story.  Each experience teaches us something; some of these lessons have been joyful and others have been hard.  We use what we learn to better support teachers as they start and run schools.

At Wildflower, we embrace opportunities for individual and organizational growth. Early on, we realized that our approach to racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity was not working.  We brought in an equity expert to act as a coach and to support us in considering equity in every decision. We’re making our schools financially accessible to more students through private and public partnerships and engaging in the reflective work that will allow our schools to create supportive, welcoming and high-quality environments for all families.

Wildflower is a dynamic, transformative organization; we evolve in order to best meet the needs of our children, families, communities and teachers.  We aren’t trying to reproduce the original hub of schools. We expect that each school and each hub will develop in its own organic, serendipitous way, using advice and the lessons learned from the schools that preceded them but charting their own path.

Wildflower Structure

I’ve heard that Wildflower is a “Teal” network. What does that mean?

The Wildflower network is a community of independent and interdependent organizations – in the way that an ecosystem is a community of independent but interdependent organisms.

We use the word Teal to describe a set of working approaches that reflect some of our core beliefs about people.  We find that people are much more capable than the typical organizational model suggests. We believe that all of the people within the Wildflower community are here for the right reasons and are working to help Wildflower fulfill its purpose – to create spaces for learning that support children, families and teachers as they follow life’s unfolding journey.  We believe that people can make good decisions, learn what they don’t know, distinguish between important and unimportant information and handle challenging situations with maturity. Our work approach reflects these beliefs.

Frederic LaLoux, in his book Reinventing Organizations, attached the word Teal to a specific set of practices consistent with these beliefs.  He grouped the practices that we and others who share our beliefs use into three categories:

  • Self-management: self-organizing teams, fluid roles (not permanently connected to individual people), radical transparency, limited project planning and budgeting, decentralized decision-making supported by an “advice process” and a “conflict resolution process”, almost no staff functions
  • Wholeness: practices designed to enable individuals to fully be themselves at work; practices that support integration of the different parts of oneself, and healing from the damage that comes from suppressing aspects of yourself to be more acceptable for others.
  • Evolutionary purpose: organizations are seen to have their own living purpose, and individuals are invited to listen closely for the direction the organization wants to evolve; no mission and vision statements, no long-term strategic plans.

In the same way that new Montessori teachers learn to let go of conventional ideas about children and education and take on new teaching practices, joining a Teal network requires letting go of some previous habits and ways of working.  This can take some adjustment but allows for a high level of empowerment for every individual in the network.

What is Wildflower’s organizational structure?

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 can move on to another within the Wildflower network. Schools articulate needs that the Foundation’s school support function meets. Interdependence allows the ecosystem to do things that no participant could do alone.

Is Wildflower comparable to a chain or franchise?

This is a good question with a nuanced answer. Wildflower Schools operate quite differently from what we think of as chains and franchises. To begin with, the schools are non-profit organizations and are not owned by anyone. Most start up funding comes from The Wildflower Foundation or other philanthropic sources, and teacher entrepreneurs are not expected to contribute personal capital or personally guarantee loans. Most important, the primary mechanism for ensuring that Wildflower schools meet the community’s standards is self-governance on the basis of our shared commitment to values, norms and principles and with very few across the board rules or processes. The reason the answer is not a simple “no” is because the word “franchise” is heavily regulated by the federal government and most states, and some of those laws apply to our work.

Are all Wildflower schools non-profit? Can Wildflower schools be for-profit?

Most organizations in the Wildflower network are not-for-profit – including The Wildflower Foundation and all of the shopfront schools. We prefer non-profit schools because it aligns with our philosophy that our schools are like living organisms and not the property of an individual, and because The Wildflower Foundation’s tax-exempt status prohibits us from providing anything of value as a gift to a for-profit entity. So far, we have identified two situations in which a different legal structure (such as an LLC) could make sense: 1) some Wildflower schools start out as very small, one teacher, in-home programs or parent-child educational programs, both of which can be so small that the overhead associated with non-profit status would be overwhelming; we allow these programs to remain as for-profit programs until they are ready to move to a shop front location and become a full Wildflower school; 2) we have received significant interest from teacher-leaders around the world, and not-for-profit laws and structures are not the same in all places and may not always work.

Is there a fee for starting a school? Does the Foundation charge an ongoing fee?

We have not started charging any fees to our schools. Our intention is to charge each school an annual fee, but not until it is on stable economic footing, which generally takes several years. At that point, we will begin to charge an annual fee that we expect will be 3-5% of revenue – which will contribute toward covering the cost of the tools and supports we provide to schools, and reduce our reliance on annual fundraising. As with other decisions at Wildflower, we’ll determine this using our advice and decision making process in a transparent way that will include the perspectives of our current teacher-leaders.

Okay, I’m intrigued. What’s next?

If you’d like to follow Wildflower – check out our blog, newsletter and Facebook page

Express your interest here to be introduced to your region’s Site Entrepreneur, your first point of contact at Wildflower.

Once you connect with your Entrepreneur, you’ll learn more about Wildflower, share your questions and vision, and receive support in self-assessing your readiness to successfully open and run a Wildflower school.

To learn more about Wildflower’s beginnings – Wildflower Opening Speech and Sep Kamvar’s TED Talk

To learn more about the Wildflower approach – read 9 Principles, Wildflower Norms, Wildflower Values, Montessori for Adults, Our approach to Self-Management  and Our Approach to Wholeness

If you want to further explore what it means to be Teal, read Reinventing Organizations – chapters 1, 2.2, 2.4 and 2.6 are good places to start. Watch Jos de Blok’s TED Talk