Intro: In this episode of the Uninformed Parent, I sat down with Jamie Laws, a mother of two living in Winnetka Heights. After a great experience with a private Montessori preschool, Laws enrolled both of her children in Harry Stone, a public Montessori magnet school. Laws shares the purpose of the Montessori method of education, answers questions she commonly receives about Harry Stone, and discusses questions around her children’s future.
Keri Mitchell: So you have a fourth grader and fifth grader at Harry Stone?
Jamie Laws: Yes.
Keri Mitchell: Yeah.
Jamie Laws: That’s correct.
Keri Mitchell: And they’ve been there since?
Jamie Laws: Since Pre-K.
Keri Mitchell: Since Pre-K. Okay, so when you were thinking about schools, what were you thinking about? Why, what kinds of things were you making decisions based on at the time? This was five or six years ago?
Jamie Laws: Yeah, it’s been, yikes, it’s been a while. Initially, when we were considering and why Harry Stone even popped up is that Caitlin went to the Museum of Nature and Science. She went to the little Pre-K program they had there, which was amazing. So she went there and then right when Caroline was old enough that she would get to go. They had moved to the Perot museum and it was that big debacle, and they chose not to continue with the Pre-K program. So I had to find something to her, for her. There was an in-home Montessori School [?] Art of Peace [?] that had just opened in Oak Cliff. I didn’t really know anything about Montessori at that point. So, we put her in that program. I just thought that was great. And when they said, DISD had a magnet school that was Montessori. We looked obviously at that and Dealey and went with Harry Stone just because they have four pre-k, kinder classes. And Dealey only has three. And so there were like 44 open spots and so like playing the odds, we just went for that one. And then she got in and that’s where we’ve been ever since but had she not gotten in we would have gone to Rosemont
Keri Mitchell: Most people who get into Montessori have no idea what they’re getting into. I’m in that boat too.
Jamie Laws: Yes.
Keri Mitchell: So what did you find about it that you thought, “Oh, I like this”?
Jamie Laws: I was in that boat, not knowing anything about it. When Caroline started at Art of Peace, and you know, they have they don’t call it playing or whatever. They call it their work, because it’s very important. They’re working all day. That’s what they do. And they do the practical life. Picked her up, and it was like every day for a week that Catalina who goes to her school, she said, “Caroline did sweeping work for 20 minutes today.” And I was just being polite. I was like, “That’s great.” And so finally, after several days of this, I said, “I’m not trying to be rude. I know I’m ignorant about Montessori. But at some point, am I supposed to stop being excited that she can sweep?” She was very patient with me. She said, “Can you name one activity besides sleeping or watching TV that she will do for 20 minutes of concentrated effort?” I could think of nothing. I’d never thought about it like that, so it’s not about sweeping beans. It’s the process that she pours them out, and then she can sweep them into a pile and use the dustpan and put it back in the container. And it’s fine motor skills and concentration, and things that are important for two and a half year olds. So that’s when I learned this is different. It’s about how the mind works, not necessarily education. And by the end of it, by the time they were, you know, school age, all of those skills, helped them grade-wise and doing the school work.
Keri Mitchell: It does seem to be, and I’m still learning about it myself, but it does seem to be more about approach, how to think, how to learn than it is about what you’re learning.
Jamie Laws: Exactly. You know, maybe you’re great at reading or interested in reading. And so they have some kids that just want to read all day and so they sort of leave them alone and let them do what they want to do. And so they eventually all get to the same point without it being regimented, sitting in a desk, we all have to learn this at the same time. So there’s a lot more individual approach, which helps.
Keri Mitchell: Yeah, getting into Harry Stone was a little bit of a happy accident. You’d gone to a little Montessori Preschool, and then thought I like this. Let’s keep it going. And now you’ve been there however many years. I’m assuming you’ve kind of learned along the way. What has your experience been like? Even though it’s a choice in the beginning, it’s also a choice to stay. So why did you stay?
Jamie Laws: It’s kind of funny if you talk to different people who have had their children at Harry Stone. It seems to be very individualized experiences for people. For us, it’s been great lucking into getting teachers that bonded well with my children. Their learning styles kind of meshed with individual teachers, and we’ve just had really good luck with that so far. It just feels like an environment where the teachers actually do care about the students. It kind of feels like almost like they go out of their way to make it feel more home base, since it’s not a neighborhood school.
Keri Mitchell: And what does that look like for Harry Stone? To be a school community?
Jamie Laws: It’s really difficult to get PTA involvement, because for most of us, by the time we get our kids home from school, it’s going to be maybe a 20-25 minute drive all the way back to the school to go to the PTA meeting. So they started doing things like playing football games on TV, like in the courtyard. That gets dads coming to the PTA meetings. And having the kids doing performances, so that you’ll go if like the entire fifth grade is doing a program. So it’s, I guess, making it more than just a PTA meeting. So I would say that’s been one of the bigger struggles is that it’s not a neighborhood school, so you have to make the decision that this type of education is what you’re looking for. And that’s what, that’s what makes it worth it.
Keri Mitchell: That’s a really good point. When I’ve talked to people about this, we talk about what, what are your values, and sometimes you have to choose between values. I would love to be at a school right near my house, but I really like this Montessori approach. It doesn’t exist right near my house, so then what do I do and you have to make a choice. You made the choice to stick with the Montessori approach. So when parents come to you now, and I’m assuming parents come to you now, and ask you, “You’re at Harry Stone, I have all these questions.” What are they asking you about? What are the things on their minds when they’re trying to make this decision?
Jamie Laws: It’s kind of funny, because when the parents come to me, it’s so stressful to get them in to any of these magnet schools. You’ve heard of like the parents that are camping out the night before to get their application in first, and it’s just this thing. So it’s more like they want to know, what are the tips and tricks to get my kid into the school? Like I would ask them, “Why don’t you just go to a Rosemont?” They just think they want to go to a Montessori School.
Keri Mitchell: Do they know what it is usually?
Jamie Laws: A lot of times they don’t.
Keri Mitchell: Yeah, it just sounds so good.
Jamie Laws: It’s positive, and it’s the thing. I knew very little about it before, and now I mean that a lot of the Montessori concepts that are I feel are so valuable are really at the younger, like the Pre-K, kinder, first grade. But then I’ve seen how that transitions, like they say, you’ll never find a Montessori kid who’s bad at math. And it’s because of how they have been taught to order things in their mind and logic and procedure. It’s not necessarily they were learning long division in second grade, because they weren’t. But they have learned order and how things work, and it’s a lot of visual, there’s a lot of manipulatives. We had a parent at one of the orientation meetings that said, “I want to buy into this process but my daughter doesn’t care about learning,” and she’s maybe four. “She’s not trying to read. I just need to know she’s not going to be living with me when she’s 20.” So we all like had a good laugh at that and were like, “No, just you have to trust the process, and she’ll get there.”
Keri Mitchell: It feels like what we want is that, you know, secret magic formula that if I just do this…
Jamie Laws: Everything will be fine.
Keri Mitchell: Everything will be fine. If I just get them into the right school…
Jamie Laws: Those questions are, I think asked more as we’re talking about transitioning into middle school, because Caitlin will be in sixth grade next year. And so now I’m having to decide how I feel about the IB approach.
Keri Mitchell: Well, let’s talk about that. How do you feel about the IB approach? What are you thinking?
Jamie Laws: I don’t know. I don’t even understand what it is really, and I’ve gone to so many of those meetings. The best I can gather, it’s a kind of a thought process that the sum is greater than its individual parts. So, they’re taught like a community based mindset, which really dovetails with Montessori. It’s as the group, because when they’re little especially, they all eat lunch together. It’s always family style, and you learn to serve yourself and pass it to the next person. Then everybody participates in cleaning up, and so they learned that from the time they’re little. It seems like going into the IB middle years program it’s that but on a more mature scale. From what I’ve heard about it, that’s kind of what it is. And it seems to follow Montessori very well. And then there’s the IB High School. I want to say it’s Woodrow Wilson.
Keri Mitchell: And Hillcrest too.
Jamie Laws: And Hillcrest.
Keri Mitchell: That’s further away obviously.
Jamie Laws: Yes, and so like, again, do you want to go that direction or not? It blew my mind. She’s interested in the all girls schools, so we may consider that. But now I think the questions I’m asking now are different than I was when she was going into Pre-K.
Keri Mitchell: So what are the questions you’re asking now? I mean, obviously, “What is this?” That’s a big question, but beyond that, what are you thinking?
Jamie Laws: You know, I don’t know. A place where she can thrive and do her best work. She kind of wants to go to a school where she doesn’t have the distraction of boys, and then I’m like, “Well, is that real world?” And also, I guess the difference is when she’s going into sixth grade, considering her input is much greater than it was when she was four and didn’t know what was going on.
Keri Mitchell: I have a friend that says when they’re four years old, the question you ask them is, “Do you want me to hold your hand, or do you want to hold mine?”
Jamie Laws: Yes, yes.
Keri Mitchell: And now you’re right. Sixth grade is a lot different, and they do have a mind of their own whether or not they know exactly how to make the best decision.
Jamie Laws: That’s where we are.
Keri Mitchell: There you go.
Jamie Laws: So far, I think we’re staying at Harry Stone for middle school.
Keri Mitchell: For those who are going into Pre-K, kindergarten, looking back now, what questions would you suggest people need to ask?
Jamie Laws: I would suggest they actually go to the school. The schools are very open. They love to have visitors. So, just call and make an appointment, and then observe and see what if that appeals to you or not what you see in the classroom. What you see at a kindergarten that’s very traditional, like what we probably went to, which is the everybody has their own desk. That’s going to be quite different than what you see in a Montessori classroom where you may wonder, “Why has this child been for 30 minutes at this little water table?” And you have to understand why they’re doing that. And then ask the teacher, “What is this? What is the purpose of their activity?” Ask about curriculum. There’s not so much that we care by the end of the school year that they know X amount of words and that they can spell this and math-wise, this is what they can do. You won’t get the same answer. And some people just aren’t comfortable with that. I had a friend that said, “Well, if you put my child in a Montessori classroom, she’s going to choose to have lunch six times a day, like that’s what she’s going to do, because that’s one of the things they don’t tell them when you can have a snack. You can go there whenever you feel like it. And I felt like with Caitlin, especially with my older one, she’s going to be at every one of those tables. By the end of the day, she’s going to want to know how to do everything that’s in that room. So it depends on the personality of your child.
Keri Mitchell: Right.
Jamie Laws: And the fact that it’s a pain, but you may find that if you have more than one child it’s a different “right” school for each of them.
Keri Mitchell: That’s a tough decision all on its own, because you’ve got another one coming up. And so you’re thinking about where am I going to send one for middle school. But what about the other one? Yes, nuts. That’s a lot.
Jamie Laws: Yes, especially if you’re shuttling them all over to magnet schools.
Keri Mitchell: That stresses me out. I’ll be honest.
Jamie Laws: But people do it. We sit at the bus stop, and I see one parent sending a kid off to Harry Stone and one’s getting on the bus to Travis.
Keri Mitchell: There are the buses, so that is the good news.
Jamie Laws: But sometimes they don’t, like in our neighborhood the bus to Travis now is at Sunset. The bus for Harry Stone is at Rosemont. And if they’re five minutes apart or if they’re 20 minutes apart, then it’s like your whole morning is waiting for a bus.
Keri Mitchell: And that is a factor.
Jamie Laws: That is a big factor.
Keri Mitchell: It’s one that we don’t always think about. We do tend to be so concerned with I need to get my child into the best school, whatever that means. That we don’t think about what else is best..
Jamie Laws: Yes.
Keri Mitchell: …for me, honestly, for me what’s best for me?
Jamie Laws: Yeah, what’s best for my life?I don’t particularly like that they’re home from school at almost four o’clock, like it’s a long day. I don’t worry about it so much now at the age where they are. But when I was putting a four year old on the bus at 6:45 in the morning, and she’s not getting home until almost four. That’s a long day for a little kid.
Keri Mitchell: Mm hmm, obviously, you’ve had a great experience at Harry Stone with Montessori. And I’m sure don’t regret that and wouldn’t change that. But as you think about if I had sent my kids to Rosemont or another school, you ever think about what would have happened, what would it be like if I would have sent my kids elsewhere? Then knowing what you know now what’s the outcome in your mind, that’s different.
Jamie Laws: With Rosemont in particular, so much has changed since Caitlin was going into Pre-K like when she was going into Pre-K, it was at that point, I think there was a couple of school years, where it was only the income based. The lottery system wasn’t there for those school years, so that wasn’t an option. We couldn’t have even done Pre-K there. And that was one of the big reasons I was like, “We have to get into Harry Stone.” Now that’s I believe that’s back. They have the lottery system for all Pre-K. If that had been there, that would have been a different outcome. I didn’t know that it was at this point, they were going to have middle school. So now they have Rosemont goes through eighth grade, I believe now. So that had changed. And just seeing some of her friends from the neighborhood that have gone to Rosemont from the beginning. They’re both in fifth grade. I don’t feel like my child is any better off or more advanced than the other child. I’m thinking, “What if we would have gotten involved early on at the neighborhood school? What difference would have made in our lives?” But I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t change it, because I haven’t had a bad experience.
Keri Mitchell: I get what you’re saying. I love my experience. But you can kind of see both sides of it like if we had gone that route.
Jamie Laws: …And stayed.
Keri Mitchell: It would have been good too maybe.
Jamie Laws: Yes, and that’s what I think it might be there’s not a bad choice. I mean, you’re not sending your child to some terrible place. They’re all good schools. They have good staff. We spent a lot of time at Rosemont, because we would sit there waiting for the bus. And so I had interactions with the kids that were there and the staff that was there. I mean, I wouldn’t have one problem with my child going to school here. This would be fine. I’ll tell you one thing about especially the early years that I used to tell people when they were looking in Pre-K or kindergarten, one of the benefits I found from the early, the practical life is what they call it for the littles when they’re in Montessori. My children could fold laundry in such a way that you don’t have to redo it from the time they were little bitty, because they have a “work”, which is folding washcloths. So they can fold laundry. They can hang up their clothes on their own. They really do get the practical life type experiences. They’ve learned to tie their shoes early like Caitlin’s necklace was knotted up the other day. She was able to kind of work it out and didn’t lose her patience. I completely attribute that to the early Montessori skills that they developed.
Keri Mitchell: I’m with you. I’m a huge fan of that at the early years. That’s kind of why we did it in the first place. My sister had a really good experience with it with my niece. And I said wait a minute, “They learned to zip zippers and button buttons. Yes, I want someone to teach my child that. That’s great.” Which you’re right. You get into it, and you think “Well, this is an academic.”
Jamie Laws: And it’s not.
Keri Mitchell: But it is about starting and finishing something.
Jamie Laws: That’s what was always amazing to me when I would go observe them in their classroom, especially with Caroline, my younger one. I was like, “Who is this child?” I mean, she’s capable of putting things away. She was so like careful with how she handled everything.
Keri Mitchell: Did you ever worry about if I send them to a Montessori School will that be a detriment as they switch back into a traditional school? Was that something that was on your mind at all?
Jamie Laws: It was and it’s interesting you say that. Caitlin’s Pre-K teacher ended up leaving the school. She moved out of state, and so she had a new teacher for kindergarten or it might have been the rest of her Pre-K year. Anyway, this teacher was a Montessori kid. I think she went to Dallas Montessori, but she went her entire up until ninth grade and then went to a Catholic school. She felt very strongly about that. She said, “I struggled with having to do things when I’m told to do them like we do these classes, these lessons at this time, you have to sit in a desk and take a test and it’s timed.” You can’t just work on it as long as you want to. So she felt like that was at some point if you’re just insisting on being pure Montessori you’re setting the older child up to not do well. And that is something I worried about. I would think about being at work like this is the real world. I can’t tell my boss, “Uh I don’t really want to work on that right now.” Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to or at a time, you’re not feeling like doing that.
Keri Mitchell: Right. Right.
Jamie Laws: But I think it’s worth it to do it when they’re 2,3,4,5, but also, I mean, Harry Stone is part of DISD so they still have to do the standardized testing. They still have the workbooks, and they still have to have grades. It’s not a pure private Montessori School where you can sort of pick and choose. They do have a little bit more structure. And so I feel better about that, but yeah, that was a concern early on, especially when the teacher who grew up Montessori, I thought “Well, who better to tell me.” She said, “It was mean. That was like almost child abuse taking her from pure Montessori and then putting her in a Catholic school.” So that was her experience with it. So it was interesting getting her perspective too.
Keri Mitchell: Yeah. All the things to think about.
Jamie Laws: Oh no, there’s so much.
Keri Mitchell: There is so much. Well, thank you. I really appreciate it.
Outro: Thanks for listening to The Uninformed Parent. In the next episode, we’ll talk to a principal and teacher at Stockard Middle School who are invested in the school’s culture because they not only work there but live in the neighborhood, too. This podcast is a production of Advocate Magazines with music by HookSounds.