Why We Left IMO, and Why We Returned

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By Karen Carlson, IMO Mom

My 6th grade daughter has been a student at IMO since Kindergarten. Until recently, it’s the only school she’s known, and she’s loved it. She’s made great friends, bonded with her teachers and thrived academically. For her, school has always been a safe, kind, and loving place.

This year, she saw her non-IMO friends transition to middle school. She started talking about how much she wanted to change classes, have a gym locker, electives and stand in a lunch line. I could see that “regular school” fascinated her.

She begged me to take her for a tour of our zoned middle school, and she loved what she saw.  “Mom, I want 7 class periods a day, homework, tests and a gym locker. Please let me try this.”

Yikes. Should we make the switch? Is this the universe telling me she needs and wants more structure, more classes, more tests and homework? After much soul-searching, I decided that I had to let her make the choice. As a Montessori student, she’s learned since kindergarten that her education is in her hands. I’ve always loved that about our school. But I never thought it would lead her right out the door to a traditional school.

So, two weeks into the school year, she switched to what I will refer to as the big middle school. We shopped for non-uniform school clothes, got her a cell phone for the bus ride (no more car line) and waved goodbye as the big yellow bus took her to a new experience.

She was there for two weeks before she asked with tears in her eyes, “Mama, can you see if I can transfer back to my old school?” Below are the reasons why. I’m paraphrasing her descriptions and grouping them under themes.

Respect

At my new school, the kids are really disrespectful to each other and the teachers. They swear all day. They don’t pay attention. Sometimes it takes the entire class period just for the teacher to get everyone under control. And the kids are really mean to each other. The best strategy to avoid being teased or mocked is to just sit quiet the whole day and not say anything.

Autonomy

There’s no freedom at my new school. You have to ask permission to sharpen your pencil and to go to the bathroom. You need a signed pass to enter the library and check out a book, and it expires every day. You aren’t allowed to get up from the lunch table to get a napkin or throw away garbage.

Computers

Everything in the new school is on the computer. Even the teachers text us during class instead of talk to us. I wish there was more classroom discussion and in-person interaction.

Clothing

I never thought I’d say this, but I really love uniforms. At my new school, you have to think really hard about what you are going to wear, but at IMO nobody cares what you look like. We’re all equal. 

I know that every child’s experience at IMO is different, and I can only speak for ours. In 6 years, my daughter has never been teased. She’s never heard a swear word at school. She’s never overheard a conversation about sexting. She’s never sat all day on a laptop. She’s never gone from class to class, anonymously.

The teachers at the big middle school made no attempt to get to know her as a person. There is no need, because the education offered is “one-size-fits-all” with no differentiation (outside of advanced leveling). Contrast this with her relationships at IMO where her teachers of many years cherish her, provide her with supplemental projects based on her personal interests and offer opportunities to lead and teach the younger students.

During this same time period, my daughter opened up to me about how much she loved teaching lessons to the younger students in her 4th-6th grade classroom. She said, “Mama, I taught a 4th grader a lesson, and I hope she becomes a mathematician. I can be proud to know that I taught her decimals!

I attended the open house at this big middle school, and I can share some further observations that I think may be interesting to other Montessori parents.

Teaching for the Test

The history teacher reassured the parents present at open house that he would not be presenting any materials that wouldn’t be on the end of year state test. While this can have its benefits, and this middle school has very high test scores, it rules out the opportunity for students to delve deeper into the material.

The language arts program was designed around the iReady software, which drills students on reading comprehension. Students were expected to spend 20% of their time on iReady drills and the rest of their time on other “show what you know” activities. My daughter loves to read and write, but she hated this class the most.  I don’t understand why language arts is now taught in a way that is detached from literature.

At IMO, my daughter is reading and discussing the book “I Am Malala,” as well as participating in an informal reading group among friends.

Software

I was pretty impressed with how the teachers used Progress Book and Canvas at the big middle school. I could log in and see every assignment, quiz and test. I could even see whether she bought a Rice Krispy treat at lunch. With this in mind, I can see why parents transferring from regular public schools feel that IMO doesn’t share enough information about what’s going on in the classroom. I also felt overwhelmed by online information and email notifications.

Teachers

At the big middle school, the teacher-student relationship felt very corporate. Each teacher has hundreds of students per day and only has so much time and energy to get to know them. I’m quite certain that had my daughter stayed, she may have formed a bond with 1 or 2 of her 7 teachers. Contrast this with IMO, where our students have the opportunity to have the same teachers for 2-3 years. These teachers really know our kids! It’s a huge advantage.

Friends

My daughter was lucky to be placed with one of her best friends, which was a godsend – as well as spend lunches with her. However, because the middle school is a new school to all the students of 5 feeder elementary schools and because there are 7 periods per day, it’s possible that you could go through your schooling there and not overlap classes with your friends.

One of the aspects I like best about our school is that our kids have the ability to travel with a cohort of a kids for years at a time. My daughter has been learning, co-creating, eating lunch and enjoying recess with the same kids since kindergarten. Because of this, she’s had the ability to make deep and lasting friendships that I have no doubt will be intact for years to come.

We talked for a long time about the differences. She understood after 2 weeks at a big middle school that IMO was a special place, offering a unique educational experience.

And so after 2 weeks, we re-enrolled back at IMO. We had to wait for some invites to be turned down, but based on previous Montessori experience, we were able to move up the waiting list. We were lucky to get back in.

This was a great learning experience for our family. Sometimes you need to leave “home” to know what it is that you have. My daughter is back with her class at IMO and happier than ever. She knows what makes her school different and special and she’s excited to welcome her little brother in a few years.