Daggett Montessori approaches teaching a little differently. Besides having an active PTA and dozens of student clubs, the combined elementary and middle school takes a “whole child” approach to learning that’s modeled after Maria Montessori’s observation-based research in child development, which has become the model for Montessori schools across the world. One feature of that model: Third-graders at Daggett share classrooms with first- and second-graders, allowing older children to guide youngsters as teachers work through daily lessons.
Tina Harrison has two children at Daggett. She said she has “always been happy” with the program there. The teachers, she said, are caring and hard working, and the Montessori approach to learning has worked well for her children. Parental involvement is so high that Harrison recalled a palpable nervousness among many teachers and parents in the spring of 2017 when it was announced that the school would have both a new principal and assistant principal later that fall.
“What are we going to do?” Harrison recalled thinking. “The parents were following the interview process. Neither [of the hires] had Montessori training yet.”
The new principal, Veronica Delgado, did receive Montessori training at the Houston Montessori Center in 2017, said Fort Worth school district spokesperson Clint Bond. While the parents and teachers with whom Harrison spoke were concerned about the continuity of the Montessori programs that had served the students well, Harrison recalled not being overly concerned. After all, her children were continuing with the same teachers.
“I felt, even if the administration changes, not much was going to affect me,” she said. “That’s what I was believing. I approached it with an open attitude.”
In the months that followed, the principal began clashing with teachers and parents, according to multiple parents and two people with intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the school. The principal has many supporters, including dozens of parents who spoke in her favor of the school’s leadership during two district board meetings last summer. One mother, Heather Leaf, filed a grievance with the Fort Worth school board that will be heard in a closed session soon at 2903 Shotts Street. Leaf alleges that school board member Ashley Paz, whose district represents Daggett Montessori, abused her position by trying to push out the principal.
Leaf told me in a phone interview that efforts to implement a pilot program that catered to students with dyslexia was delayed several weeks due to concerns over whether the principal would be returning this fall. Those delays impact Leaf’s daughter, who lives with the learning disability. Leaf said that around 7 percent of children at that school have dyslexia.
The parents “went out on faith believing that [the principal] would be a good leader,” she said. “The principal really took to the Montessori philosophy. I see [the principal’s] passion for our kids. I have witnessed [the principal] engaging with our most struggling students. I see [our school’s leadership] going beyond their call of duty.”
I reached out to Paz, but she declined an interview. Paz’s lawyer advised her to not comment publicly before the grievance hearing, Paz said. The board member is not one of the unnamed sources in this story. I also reached out to the principal through school district channels but did not hear back by press time. School district staffers are commonly not allowed to comment due to restrictions outlined in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
Last July, Paz, so sure that she had acted responsibly, requested that the Texas Education Administration, the governing body that oversees Texas’ public schools, conduct an examination into her handling of the principal’s first year at Daggett Montessori (“Paz’s Preemptive Strike,” Aug. 8). The TEA later declined to fulfill Paz’s request.
“Recently, a district parent has asserted that I have issued directives to staff on certain personnel matters” at Daggett Montessori, Paz wrote on her Facebook page at the time. “While I believe these allegations are driven not by malice, but rather by bad information and a lack of understanding of how the process works, they are nonetheless untrue.”
One individual who asked not to be named witnessed the principal’s handling of personnel matters and interactions with students on a regular basis. We are giving the witness the pseudonym Sam to protect them from retaliation.
The principal seemed out of touch with the Montessori approach to teaching, Sam said.
Whereas traditional schools follow a linear curriculum that allows for certain benchmarks to be checked off at regular intervals, the Montessori approach allows for flexibility with the understanding that the students will learn the topics at hand by the end of the semester or year. Beyond being a stickler for meeting periodic benchmarks (with the assumed interest of being prepared for standardized testing), the new principal, Sam said, created a toxic work environment that divided teachers into pro- and anti-principal camps.
The new principal, Sam continued, “created a massive divide among teachers. If you confront her with something, she doesn’t deal with the issue. I can’t believe how many times we sent emails that she never returned.”
While a growing number of parents and teachers took sides over the new administration, Harrison, a black mother, said she was having difficulties convincing Daggett Montessori staff to address several incidents of white students calling black students “nigga,” including two cases involving Harrison’s daughter.
One month into Delgado’s first year at Daggett Montessori, Harrison received a call from a fellow parent whose child had witnessed a young boy use the n-word toward Harrison’s daughter.
“It broke my heart,” Harrison recalled. “I remember being 10 when I was called the same word.”
Harrison said she did not hear back from the principal after several attempts to contact her. Harrison’s daughter was later shown a lineup of photos of kids who were on the playground at the time of the name-calling. But the photos, then a year old, did not resemble the middle schoolers well enough for Harrison’s daughter to identify the boy. Weeks later, Harrison caught the principal in the parking lot and demanded answers.
The principal told her “the district is rolling out a new program” to address racial problems, Harrison said. “The response I got was lackluster.”
After the principal’s first year leading Daggett Montessori, three teachers chose to not renew their contracts, meaning they voluntarily left the school. Sam predicts an even larger exodus next year, based on what she said are private conversations with current Daggett teachers. Of the 34 teachers on the school’s roster last year, five left the school for the 2018-19 academic year, Bond said. According to school records, one teacher commented that it was “just time” to leave. Two teachers cited the new school leadership as the primary reason they left, adding that the principal did not have adequate Montessori experience. A fourth teacher wrote that she “loved” the new principal. Bond said the chief of elementary schools has prepared a “priorities map” to address Montessori training, racial equity, and parent engagement at Daggett Montessori.
Harrison regrets not bringing the incidents of racial slurs to high-level administrators sooner. Months after her daughter was verbally insulted, Harrison sent an email to Fort Worth school district superintendent Kent Scribner, Paz, and the principal, detailing the principal’s handling of her daughter’s situation. Harrison said the principal met with her last August and mapped out ways to address further incidents of verbal racism.
“They have been more responsive,” Harrison said, “but it doesn’t negate the fact that children continue to be the victim of disparaging slurs there.”
Leaf is aware of the frustration some teachers have expressed toward the new leadership as well as the concerns over racial slurs. The grievance hearing, she said, is solely focused on Paz’s handling of the situation last year. Leaf hopes school board trustees will examine board policy procedures to ensure that a school board member does not have undue influence in personnel matters at Fort Worth schools.
“All of these personnel decisions are under the superintendent,” she said, referring to Fort Worth school district guidelines. “The only responsibility of our board is to set goals, create policy, and evaluate the superintendent. I would like to see them enforce those rules.”