Xueli Zheng chats with one of her students at Lee Montessori School in the Anacostia neighborhood. (Courtesy of Lee Montessori School)
Xueli Zheng chats with one of her students at Lee Montessori School in the Anacostia neighborhood. (Courtesy of Lee Montessori School)

Oftentimes, when people muse about Montessori schools, they imagine private facilities in prosperous surroundings that cater specifically to children of privileged backgrounds.

However, thanks to the vision of a group of avant-garde educators, a myth of sorts — in the form of the new Lee Montessori School located in one of D.C.’s most disadvantaged communities — faces dismantlement.

Although some 1,200 students are currently attending Montessori schools west of the river, “there has not been a full Montessori school east of the Potomac,” said Alex Brown, founding head of the new facility at the Birney School building on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast.

Brown, a former fifth-grade teacher who graduated magna cum laude from Old Dominion University, noted that while there are several Montessori schools in D.C. for parents in search of “something different than traditional model educational offerings,” Lee officials felt the need for more high-performing schools with more diverse models east of the river.

“There have been schools with small Montessori programs within them, but since there were no full public Montessori schools in Southeast [we seized the opportunity], and the response has been overwhelmingly popular,” said Brown, armed with a background in both charter and traditional school arenas.

Brown added that with the establishment of two such schools — Lee Montessori, in existence since 2014 is in Ward 5 and enrolls 236 students — “we’re looking to give students more freedom of choice in their education, while specifically targeting children of color from low-income homes.”

The lottery-based Lee Montessori, named in honor of Tahiira Lee, an African American educator who garnered a long history of Montessori alignment, serves its new community as a tuition-free public charter school that provides “the feel of a private school education,” according to Brown.

He said the school met approval in December 2018 and was designated a building site in March of this year. Lee opened its doors in August to an enrollment of 88 pre-K students.

All of Lee’s students — ages 3 and 4 — had to live in D.C. and meet the criteria for the grades offered.

Poised to increase enrollment to 400 students over the next term, so far Lee has achieved “a good ratio” of diversity not just among students — but staff as well.

For instance, all the teachers have a master’s degree and can teach six to seven different courses. Many of the instructors are also alumni of the Montgomery Montessori Institute in Maryland.

In addition to serving as the school’s co-founder and executive director, Chris Pencikowski, who began his career teaching third grade as a Peace Corps volunteer, also oversees the school in Ward 5. Overall, he is responsible for ensuring the day-to-day and long-term success of both buildings.

In its first three years of operation, Lee Montessori demonstrated strong outcomes, as evidenced by positive student outcomes, including Tier 1 Status among D.C.’s Public Charter schools, long waitlists, and significant narrowing of achievement gaps for students of color, according to background information on the Ward 5 school.

Pencikowski, who describes the Anacostia facility as “very active” with its community, added that the school has successfully established partnerships with neighborhood organizations such as churches to bring Lee more visibility.

To that end, “we’ve hosted different events such as those with nearby Campbell A.M.E. Church,” he said.

Dominique Fortune, the school’s chief of staff, said Lee, which is “totally focused” on parental engagement, has a director of equity and family engagement to help things along.

Other efforts at parental outreach include open houses and parent/principal conferences every few months.

“We try to be creative as possible getting parents acquainted with the school,” said Fortune, who once provided program management services for charter schools seeking to develop facilities in the District and, is now responsible for ensuring strategic priorities and special projects across both Lee campuses. “It’s an amazing experience for our staff and faculty to engage with parents, as well as those grandparents and aunties who are raising children and supporting them at the school.”

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