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Lessons in grace and courtesy are a big part of the curriculum at Cosmos Montessori in south Minneapolis.

Yet, it still was striking to see a preschooler gently place her hand on the shoulder of a teacher last week and wait silently for a conversation to end.

When teacher Veronica Vital finished speaking, she turned her attention to the student with the pink T-shirt reading "Wild At Heart" and calmly addressed the matter at hand.

Respect and kindness go both ways at Cosmos, and they are qualities Brandon Royce-Diop hopes to make possible between more teachers and students of color in Minnesota. He is a partner in a foundation aiming to develop new Montessori microschools as part of a nationwide network known as Wildflower.

Specifically, Royce-Diop wants to see more students of color exposed to the principles of Montessori instruction — a system that values independence and respect for children that allows them to explore their own interests to the extent they desire.

"We need Black and brown students to have that trust and dignity — and a guide to help bring that out," he said. "The goal is to unleash what is within."

As part of the Wildflower Equity Initiative, teachers pitch a vision for their schools and are then trained in cohorts. The effort is in its third year, and the first such school — Acacia Montessori, co-founded in part by a Somali couple — is expected to open in Apple Valley in January, Royce-Diop said.

But the teacher shortage is real across all education venues, and Wildflower is in search of more teachers of color with an entrepreneurial mindset to launch the small startups.

Wildflower opened its first school in 2014 in Cambridge, Mass., and now has more than 60 schools across the U.S. and Puerto Rico. The growth has been made easier by the deliberately small size of the schools — many of them occupy neighborhood storefronts — and the sharing of ideas and best practices across a national network.

Educators who wish to open schools can go to the nonprofit foundation for grants and low-interest startup loans. They also are as independent as their learners.

"We have decision-making, which is huge. We don't have to go to a director," Vital said. "The workload is intense, but it's worth it. To impact children — it has no price."

Wildflower has six schools in Minnesota, and three of them — Cosmos Montessori and Lirio Montessori in Minneapolis, and Water Lily Montessori in St. Paul — operate as charter schools. Montessori programs also are a part of the offerings of a growing number of public school districts, including Minneapolis and St. Paul.

In 2015, Valeria Silva, then the superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools, sought to build on the popularity of its Montessori options by adding a "Children's House" for preschoolers to kindergartners at Cherokee Heights Elementary on the West Side.

But the program failed to win over many families there, and a year ago, the school board decided Cherokee Heights would continue only as a neighborhood school under the Envision SPPS redesign. Its Montessori students could go, instead, to J.J. Hill Montessori, but only about 20 kids ended up doing so, according to a recent board update.

Teacher Elizabeth Badillo Moorman works with a student during pre-school at Cosmos Montessori, in Minneapolis.
Teacher Elizabeth Badillo Moorman works with a student during pre-school at Cosmos Montessori, in Minneapolis.

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

Cosmos Montessori has the familiar Children's House look. Kid-sized furniture. Wooden trays and desks. The students are spread out across the room — many working alone. Last Monday, a little girl placed a succession of numbers on a small rug. A boy drew and colored in continents on a wide sheet of paper.

Vital stood on one side of the room and spoke of the value of social-emotional learning. Kids hold hands, she said. The scene was quite serene until two boys got into a small argument, and Vital went over to help them talk it out.

"Don't throw that book at me again," one boy said, and it was over.

Vital said, "They reach a very high level of self-regulation. It's beautiful."

At Cosmos, each student has a personalized learning plan tailored to his or her interests, and when they develop a skill, "they move on," Vital said.

She has taught Montessori for 23 years and attended Wildflower training sessions.

"This is my dream," she said.

Seeking diverse teachers

Royce-Diop is part of a three-person team determined to guide other teachers of color through the process. Daniela Vasan heads fundraising. Maya Soriano helps with the startups and the first year of operations. He is in charge of recruitment.

Of the short supply of teachers of color, he said: "It's a reality. It's a pain point."

In addition to the Apple Valley school, the equity initiative has schools in the pipeline in north Minneapolis and Owatonna, he said. Two teachers are behind the north Minneapolis effort, but are having difficulty finding a site that doesn't need a lot of work.

"They won't open anywhere else," Royce-Diop said. "They are seeking space in north Minneapolis to serve Black and brown families. That is their priority."

At Acacia, Abdi Botan trained to be a Montessori teacher as part of the initiative. He and his wife have three young children, and their co-founder Melissa Franzen is a friend who is white.

Royce-Diop has high hopes.

"Over the last year and a half I've gotten to know this team and they're all very, very good people," he said. "I believe in them as people and as a team and as educators. The students and the families will see that."