More than a decade ago, the outlook for the "Segunda Unidad Pasto" public school in Aibonito, Puerto Rico was not encouraging.
A high incidence of school violence, desertion and the presence of drug traffickers in this rural community were just some of the challenges that, added to a threat of closure by the local Department of Education, brought the place to the brink of failure.
But thirteen years ago, the school began a process of transformation to the Montessori method that, beyond an academic success, has resulted in a new school for Barrio Pasto.
''This school was for school dropouts referred by the court because the school barely had enrollment, nobody wanted to enroll in this school because there was a lot of drugs ... we were worried but after the [Montessori] project started, it got better and today we feel very happy that the school is in this neighborhood, '' said Juanita, community leader and a grandmother who volunteers at the school.
In its low point, the school had 163 students distributed in 25 classrooms: in each class, there were barely 6 or 7 students. Today, each classroom is operating at capacity, the school has an enrollment of 411 children and there is a waiting list.
"The Pasto neighborhood was the neighborhood in Aibonito where no one wanted to take their children and practically the Montessori model and the transformation shown in these, thirteen to almost fourteen years, has made the whole town of Aibonito turn their eyes to this community as the education alternative for their children", said Janice Alejandro, principal of the school since 2013.
The Montessori project began on this campus in 2007 with a "Casa de Niños" (3 to 5 years old children) classroom and two enthusiastic teachers: Yolanda Latorre and Carmen Ortiz. These pioneers left traditional teaching to implement the Montessori philosophy, in which they were formed thanks to the Instituto Nueva Escuela (INE).
INE is a nonprofit organization that was born to attend the high demand of public schools wanting to become Montessori. It is dedicated to the academic and social transformation of public school communities that want to provide their children and youth with better academic and socio-emotional outcomes.
Faced with the uncertain outlook, without the backing of the administration and without any other school staff who knew about Montessori, Carmen and Yolanda accepted INE's model and set out to bring Montessori to the neighborhood. Thanks to that first step, today the school offers the Montessori curriculum to its entire enrollment, 92% of its faculty is certified in the philosophy, and a community empowered by the education of its residents.
Montessori is a scientifically proven pedagogy based on a deep respect for children and their potential that has deliver successful outcomes over a century. It aims for each student to reach their intellectual potential, to build self-esteem, healthy relationships and a strong value system. Cultivating love for learning early on makes it a lifelong pursuit and a propelling force for success in any future aspirations. Before INE's public model existed, a Montessori curriculum was out of reach for low-income families.
The community is also an integral part of how the Pasto school works, as Janice exemplifies: ‘’If there are teachers painting they come and help them. If there is an open house they offer to help. That bridge with the community has been one of the greatest achievements''.
The involvement of parents has been key in the school transformation. Participation of the families is such in this school that family assemblies have to be divided by level due to high attendance, something that did not happen 13 years ago.
The community is so engaged that some of its members recently organized and opened a cooperative factory to build and market Montessori materials, creating new jobs and economic opportunities in the area.
"We have transformed not only teachers who decide to study, we have transformed families, we have transformed a community that did not know they had a beautiful school with students with high academic potential… Now the entire town has acknowledged this transformation of a community that was practically forgotten", Alejandro concluded.
Stories like Pasto's replicate around dozens of public schools in Puerto Rico that have decided to transform their communities with the help of Instituto Nueva Escuela.