After years of juggling child care arrangements, this fall Anna Barrett finally got both her sons into Humberside Montessori School near her home.
So she was surprised to find out that in the new year her younger son, Henry, along with all the other 2- and 3-year-olds, will be taken out of the school to another building off-site.
“He’s been excited to go to school with his older brother and now he won’t be able to,” said Barrett, whose older son, James, has been at Humberside for two years. “We signed up for the whole year. Now he has to go somewhere else for a few months, then he can come back.”
The drastic measure is an unintended consequence of new daycare legislation that has many Montessori schools scrambling to meet strict rules involving class size, square footage and age ratios from which they used to be exempt.
But putting 3-year-olds in a separate class runs contrary to the Montessori philosophy, which encourages kids of different ages to learn from each other. Humberside Montessori’s principal, Felix Bednarski, says the new rules give him no other choice.
“There is no best option. The choices are very difficult,” he told the Star.
Bednarski said he could not get the existing classes licensed as daycares, but declined to explain why. After arranging for the Star to visit the school, he later cancelled.
The new provincial rules are forcing other Montessori schools to reduce class sizes or create “holding” classes for 3-year-olds until space opens up in mixed classes, but Bednarski said these measures are incompatible with Montessori principles.
“No path taken by any program will be able to follow 100 per cent of Montessori standards,” he said.
Dozens of Montessori schools across Ontario existed in a loophole that allowed private schools operating before 1993 to have daycares exempted from licensing and regulation. The new rules, which take effect Jan. 1, close that grandfathered exception and require all programs with children under 3-years-and-8-months-old to register as a daycare.
Grandfathered Montessoris are scrambling to comply with the new rules, which offer two licensing options for daycares caring for kids over 2-and-a-half: a “preschool” class of a maximum 24 kids and three adults, or a “kindergarten,” which allows 26 kids and two adults, with no more than seven kids under 3-years-and-8-months-old.
Montessori educators say the first option keeps class sizes too small, while the second doesn’t allow for an equal proportion of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds in their “Casa” level classes.
“It completely undermines the dynamic and the philosophy of the program,” said Gino Falcitelli, head of La Villa Montessori in Mississauga. “We won’t be able to survive like that.”
Montessori schools follow an educational theory, developed in Italy more than 100 years ago, that emphasizes a child’s independence. But the word “Montessori” isn’t under copyright and fewer than 100 of the 451 schools and daycares in Ontario that use the name are accredited in any way.
These “authentic” Montessoris risk losing their accreditation by following the new daycare rules, said Anne Laws, co-ordinator at Montessori Quality Assurance, which is affiliated with Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), based in Holland.
“Our accredited schools are the ones who stand to lose the most,” said Laws.
“To be accredited at that high level, you have to have the full range of three ages. It just has to be there to be a true Montessori; you have to have 3-years-olds, 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds in an equal proportion, ideally. So by limiting the number of 3-year-olds that could be in that mixed-age group, it’s compromising best quality, best practice.”
Principals at accredited Montessoris say the new rules will benefit unaccredited schools, which aren’t required to have large classes of 28-35 kids and equal proportions of ages.
“What’s happening with the new legislation is it’s conceivable now that you can take a Montessori program and put in 24 children, who are all under the age of 3.8, and call it a Montessori class, which would entirely be a disaster,” said Jim Brand, principal of Maria Montessori School in Leaside, and a board member of AMI Canada. “It really opens the door for things to get worse, not get better.”
The rules around square footage, window size, outdoor space and staff training are all welcomed in the Montessori community, Brand said, but class-size caps and age ratios will cause “the extinction of true Montessori in Ontario and it will allow for the flourishing of pseudo-Montessori.”
Along with other Montessori principals, parents and the accrediting bodies, Brand has been in talks with the Ministry of Education, attempting to get class size and age ratio rules loosened. In Maine, for example, Brand says accredited Montessoris are allowed to have bigger classes than other schools. The flip side is Quebec, where daycare rules have forced Montessoris to take 3-year-olds out and put them in their own classes.
Katherine Poyntz, executive director of the Canadian Council of Montessori Administrators, which has accredited 90 Montessori schools in Ontario, says 29 of their schools were grandfathered under the old legislation, and all of them are licensing as daycares under the new rules.
While the new rules are “causing problems” in schools trying to respect Montessori principles, Poyntz’s group is taking a wait-and-see approach and won’t be taking any accreditations away from schools that have to compromise to meet the rules.
“It’s very hard when the less-than-optimal age mixes are being encouraged by legislation,” she said. “We hope they aren’t going to be responsible for weakening Montessori.”