This dad couldn’t find a good school for his son. So he started one.
Sep Kamvar’s audacious experiment with storefront Montessori takes off.
Though Wild Rose Montessori is in a storefront on busy Massachusetts Avenue in North Cambridge, inside the school is almost hushed. Its 14 students, ages 5 to 8, work on their own or in small groups in the one-room space. A teacher exchanges whispers with one student as he identifies trees based on blocks of their wood and pictures. A girl walks between a desk and drawing supplies as she works on a project. Across the room, a few kids are laying out the interior of a house on a pegboard.
To the children, the school is just that. They don’t realize that it represents a rethinking of what a school can be. Wild Rose is one of 10 Wildflower private schools that rent storefronts, which means they can keep costs down and charge less for tuition than many comparable Montessori programs (about $16,000 to $17,000 vs. about $22,000, though numbers vary widely). The schools are also small enough to avoid multiple layers of bureaucracy. The head teacher is the head administrator, which streamlines decision making and keeps the teaching staff accessible to parents.
Wildflower is the brainchild of Sep Kamvar, who couldn’t find the right school for his son and ended up creating one. Kamvar, a former Google executive who now heads the Social Computing Group at MIT’s Media Lab, did some research about early childhood education and decided he wanted nine things in a school, including a neighborhood presence, deep parental involvement, and a Montessori format driven by children’s interests. “I summarize [Montessori] as a philosophy of childhood that sees children not as blank slates needing to be filled up with knowledge but as little people in the process of constructing themselves,” Kamvar says.
For his son’s school, which opened in January 2014 on Broadway in Cambridge, Kamvar put up the seed money to rent the space and hire Montessori educators Mary Rockett and Katelyn Shore to teach up to 15 kids. As interest grew, so did a waiting list, and finally Kamvar grew tired of telling people they probably wouldn’t get in. He, Rockett, and Shore gathered the materials and software they needed to start their school — then made it all available to anyone for free online, a hallmark of open-source software.
There are now seven private Wildflower schools in Cambridge, one in Arlington, and two more slated to open in Brooklyn, New York, next fall. Demographics vary by neighborhood; some schools are in low-income neighborhoods, others in tonier spots. There are an additional four Wildflower public schools in San Juan.
Kamvar says demand has been far stronger than he thought. He believes the number of schools could double next year. But that’s not up to him. He’s the seed for Wildflower, but one of his nine principles is that each school runs itself and is funded by its founding families, a philanthropist, or even the public school district. Kamvar has set up a foundation to coordinate the school launches, but does not profit from any of them.
“For me, what was important was to create a structure that didn’t require me,” he says. “If there was a structure where I was the boss, it would create a cult of personality rather than a sustainable one.”
10 IDEAS TO TRANSFORM EDUCATION:
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