When 6-year-old Leon Vega walks into Mi Escuela Montessori on August 10, it will be a day filled with many beginnings. This is Leon’s first day of first grade. It is also the first time Mi Escuela Montessori opens its doors to students – 210, to be exact, with a waiting list for certain grade levels.

The dual-language charter school for preschool through grade eight is not only the first of its kind for Polk County, it’s a fairly rare concept in the United States.

“Mi Escuela Montessori’s charter application was approved unanimously by the School Board on April 28, 2020,” said Candy Amato, director of the Office of Charter Schools for Polk County Public Schools. “The Montessori educational approach in combination with two-way dual language immersion will be the first of its kind in Polk County.”

Mi Escuela received a huge boost when it was leased property off of Highway 98 South near County Road 540A that used to house five church buildings. Mi Escuela will aim to purchase the property in years ahead. Those buildings have now been turned into primary classrooms, preschool classrooms, office space, a gym and kitchen.

Transportation within an 8.5-mile radius of the school will be provided to students, as adequate and available transportation is usually a significant barrier to attending out-of-zone schools. Mi Escuela will offer a reduced-fee lunch program. Tuition is free for elementary and middle school, and preschool tuition is based on a sliding scale.

“We want to be a charter school that addresses an unmet need,” said Kelly De La Cruz, the force behind Mi Escuela and a longtime Montessori teacher. “It just doesn’t seem fair that some kids don’t get noticed. There are ways we can be supporting these children, and we’re not.”

Leon, who grew up speaking Spanish and English, will likely thrive in this environment, his mother said.

“I love the Montessori method and philosophy, and I want my son to have that type of education,” said Zunay Vega, who will be a primary teacher at Mi Escuela. “It was important to me that he is going to be learning English and Spanish at the same time.”

Harkins-De La Cruz and school shirts

Zunay Vega said she also believes that Mi Escuela will teach her son important lessons in character. “I feel great respect for Kelly. She has the Montessori heart. When I heard what she was doing, I said, ‘This school is going to be a success.’ It’s not just about the education, it is also the heart, the Montessori soul. That is very important.”

While outreach was the priority before the school opened, De La Cruz said, fundraising will continue to be the school’s biggest challenge. The school’s operating budget is provided by the public school system, and that is supplemented by grants and donations. “Balancing tuitions to help families of all income levels will be our biggest fundraising goal. What we have raised so far will not sustain us for the long term,” said Harkins-De La Cruz.

Recruiting teachers was another hurdle. Mi Escuela Montessori is one of four Montessori schools in Lakeland, which have become sought-after educational options. Magnolia Montessori Academy, in fact, outgrew its former location and opened at 815 S. Central Ave. this summer.

In addition to being part of the Polk County Public Schools system, Mi Escuela Montessori is part of the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector. This affiliation allows teachers, who are in training all summer, to also receive coaching throughout the school year.

Each teacher also undergoes Conscious Discipline training, which includes teaching children with special needs, turning situations into learning opportunities, resolving conflict and developing healthy behaviors. In addition, all of the curriculum is inclusive, featuring minority characters and experiences. The 10 classroom teachers (or guides, as they are called in Montessori schools) and three special area teachers also receive diversity training. De La Cruz took care to hire teachers and recruit board members from diverse backgrounds.

“It’s important for teachers to know how to teach to a child who has had a lot of loss or known what it’s like to be hungry. Teachers will think a little more critically.”

The cultural diversity at Mi Escuela is also an important point for Vega. “This teaches anti-racism in a more subtle way. This is going to be great for Polk County.”

The dream

The concept of a dual-language Montessori school has been residing in De La Cruz’s head – and heart – for nearly two decades.

As a bilingual family, the Harkins-De La Cruzes had wanted a dual-language education for their son and daughter. That was hard to find in Polk County, so the couple decided to work toward opening their own school.

When the economy crashed years ago, the hard-earned savings of Kelly and Milton De La Cruz were depleted. Instead of building their own school, the couple sent their children to Montessori schools and Kelly De La Cruz taught at Lakeland Montessori for many years.

Now that her children are older, the timing was right but the dream had evolved. “My vision changed. My focus became on the kids who aren’t always thought about. How do I make it accessible?”

Sharing information about Mi Escuela with these at-risk communities took some legwork.

“English-language learners typically don’t know about charter schools,” she said, noting she had to do a market analysis and targeted outreach to schools and areas in Bartow, Mulberry and Lakeland with underserved families.

The physical process of creating the school took about three to four years, including applications, property, funding and recruitment. Enrollment is full, with fourth grade being the highest grade this year. Each year, the school will grow until it becomes a full K-8 program serving nearly 450 students.

Typical school day

Painters are rapidly readying the interior and exterior of the classrooms, which will have multi-grade classes and individual learning plans for each student – part of the Montessori style of teaching. Each student will be immersed in core instruction in Spanish for half a day and in English for half a day. The transition is intended to be seamless, she said.

De La Cruz points to an open strip of land behind one building: “My dream is to have chickens back here.” The goal, in fact, is to make the school farm-to-table sustainable with classroom gardens, she said.

The outdoors are a big part of Montessori life, and she envisions students bringing their work outside. Two age-appropriate playgrounds and a soccer field will encourage physical activity and imagination.

As public-school students, Mi Escuela Montessori children will take state assessment tests.

Retention rates, De La Cruz said, will be among the biggest markers of success.

A majority of the students at Mi Escuela identify as Hispanic and about 8% identify as Black. Approximately 13% currently use Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). The school also has attracted students who do not speak Spanish. Their parents, De La Cruz said, enrolled them in Mi Escuela for a variety of reasons: wanting a more diverse classroom setting, support for Montessori teaching and/or interest in dual-language education for their child.

“A big part of Montessori is global change. Education that benefits the whole child benefits the whole society.”

De La Cruz is quick to note that the first day of school isn’t the completion of her dream.

“It’s close to a piece of my dream becoming a reality. The opening of the school is just a first step. When kids who are not getting serviced are getting serviced, and validated and having careers that make them fulfilled, then my dream will be real. It’s going to take a lot of work.”

For sure, opening her dream to other administrators and teachers meant a leap of faith.

“I feel really blessed. The teachers are really phenomenal. Teachers who have come here really believe in the vision … They are part of this community; it’s not just me anymore. They are legitimate creators with me. At first, it felt like it was me and my dream, and it was kind of lonely.”

August 10 can’t come fast enough for De La Cruz, and she is hopeful that the school will educate many generations of children. “It’s going to be really beautiful. I’m really excited thinking of what is going to become of this.”

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