The Montessori world has a certain mysticism that is as much philosophy as it is pedagogy. For starters, it has its own vocabulary. (Schools have “guides,” not teachers, and there are special training programs to become one.) It has inspired its own toys and physical manipulations. And according to estimates by the American Montessori Society, around 90 percent of the roughly 5,000 US Montessori schools are private.
So it’s no wonder that “Montessori education is often viewed as a niche and an elitist,” says Joel Mendes, CEO of Prepared Montessorian, a program that offers teachers and parents training on Montessori methods.
Despite this esoteric reputation, the Montessori methods seek outcomes similar to many others in education: They are designed to help children develop agency and independence, often through hands-on learning and open, collaborative activities.
Since 2016, a Californian company has set itself the goal of making Montessori mainstream by building and acquiring a network of schools and technologies, and offering professional development programs to prepare future Montessori teachers and guides. It’s a great vision – and one that recently received huge funding from leading education investors.
Higher Ground Education raised $ 40 million in a Series C funding round led by Venn Growth Partners, a Toronto-based growth equity fund investing in the consumer, education and healthcare industries. Other supporters include Learn Capital and Peak State Ventures, both educational investment firms that previously supported the company. To date, the Lake Forest, California-based company has raised $ 70 million in venture capital.
According to Ray Girn, CEO of Higher Ground Education, the vision is “to establish and modernize Montessori education by extending its principles through childhood to high schools”.
This translates into a wide range of schools and services starting with Guidepost Montessori, a network of early childhood centers and elementary schools. There is a counterpart for middle and high schools, the academy of thought and industry. Together they make up 80 schools in the USA and China and look after around 7,000 students. About two thirds of them look after babies of preschool age, the rest, according to Girn, is K-12. Tuition fees vary between $ 800 and $ 3,000 per month depending on age and location.
Another source of income for the company is teacher training and certification offered through Prepared Montessorian, Mendes’ aforementioned program. Costs range from $ 99 for a short online course to $ 7,500 for a fully accredited program. For parents, Higher Ground offers a subscription for $ 100 to $ 200 per month that gives access to its digital curriculum and ships physical toys and Montessori kits for home use.
In order to provide all of these services, head office staff as well as principals, teachers, assistants and nannies with a total of over 2,000 employees must be hired. That number will only increase as Higher Ground plans to open an additional 40 new schools in the US each year
The goal, says Girn, is “to offer continuous Montessori training, regardless of whether you are a student, a home parent or a teacher. We try to be the village that helps the adults raise the child. “
Girn began his Montessori career in 2003 as a math and science teacher at LePort Schools, then a chain of three Montessori schools in Southern California. He climbed the ladder and became its CEO in 2009. When he left Higher Ground seven years later, that network grew to 20 schools, mostly through acquisitions.
That experience would be useful. About a quarter of Higher Ground’s 80 schools have received purchase programs, many of which are in dire financial straits. These include four “microschools” sold in 2019 by AltSchool, an acclaimed educational technology startup that raised nearly $ 200 million but has since been scaled down and renamed.
Using such opportunities is part of the playbook. “The schools we buy are usually not profitable and need investment,” says Girn. “We don’t usually buy stable and healthy schools. If a school is going to close, we would like to pick it up. “
In this way, Higher Ground works like a turnaround business that takes in distressed assets and introduces a sustainable operating model. The company provides the tools and processes to manage the human resources, marketing and other administrative functions required to run a school. It also provides teacher training and the physical materials that are used in classrooms.
“These core support systems are really important,” says Carolyn Burns, principal at Guidepost Montessori in Scottsdale, Arizona, who looks after children 18 months and over. “You can run a really good quality program, but if you don’t know how to speak and enroll, you will be in trouble.”
While Higher Ground offers a number of shared backend services, it allows each school to work autonomously, adds Burns. Prior to her current school, she held a similar role for Guidepost Palo Alto in the heart of Silicon Valley (which was converted from an old-school micro-school that she also taught). “Each campus has its own personality and serves very different school communities, families and population groups,” she says.
The Montessori market, especially in preschool age, is fragmented in the sense that, according to Mendes, many schools are run by individual owners. “Quite often, these owners retire and sell to someone who doesn’t understand the Montessori model or how to run the business, and that’s where the financial problems come in,” he says.
In 2020, Higher Ground expanded its school network by 27 locations. Other acquisition targets could well emerge, as the pandemic has only exacerbated the financial burden on childcare workers across the board, who already had wafer-thin margins before the crisis. Girn says Higher Ground hasn’t closed a school yet, even amid a raging pandemic.
Overall, the company is currently not profitable. A handful of schools generate a profit that, according to Girn, lasts about three years.
Higher Ground is not alone in its quest to expand Montessori schools. In fact, it could be overshadowed by a much better funded effort led by one of the richest people in the world: Jeff Bezos, who invested $ 2 billion in a nonprofit to start his own network of Montessori preschools. The first Bezos Academy, as it is called, opened south of Seattle last October.
Development of a Montessori Tech infrastructure
Increasing the number of Montessori schools is part of the struggle. Higher Ground must occupy it too. Although there are only about 5,000 Montessori schools across the country, there is a lack of educators with the necessary training and qualifications.
“It’s not easy to find a Montessori teacher,” says Pari Schacht, founder of the Montessori Mission in San Francisco, which looks after children from 12 weeks to sixth grade.
Each Montessori class is led by a certified lead guide who is supported by several assistants. In order for assistants to take the plunge, they must be accredited. Schacht notes that the problem is the time and cost it takes to obtain this Proof of Entitlement.
Courses offered by either of the two leading accreditation organizations – the American Montessori Society and the Association Montessori Internationale – typically cost more than $ 10,000 and require an aspiring candidate to enroll for a full year or three consecutive summers . For many assistants, who earn just a little above the minimum wage in most states, this is a major time commitment and a financial burden.
As part of the prepared Montessorian program, Higher Ground Education offers its accredited course, which offers a diploma recognized by MACTE, the national accreditation council, which is available free of charge to all teachers in its network. Those outside the network can also pay $ 5,000 to $ 7,500 for the course, which can be done mostly online and at your own pace in 12 to 18 months.
According to Mendes, a total of around 600 educators are currently working through the program. Schacht credits it with “helping us to have better trained teachers and providing a career path for our assistant teachers who want to learn, grow and develop their careers.”
Higher Ground also recently acquired the learning management system developed by AltSchool, which already accommodates content for teacher training. The aim is to make it the digital hub for all resources used by parents and nannies.
The company is currently piloting to license its curriculum to other Montessori schools for a monthly fee, Girn adds. This is a small step towards a bigger vision of “going forward, providing all curricula, training and infrastructure we create to public and private school partners,” he says.
Technology is by no means alien to Montessori schools (when sensors used to track children are an indication), and Girn believes this will be vital in raising awareness, accepting, and preparing teachers for the movement.
“Many companies in the Edtech sector follow the Netflix approach. They first build the underlying technology platform, then realize that content is king, and then build their own development studios, ”says Girn. In contrast, he added, Higher Ground “started with schools and content, and now we’re expanding their reach by expanding our technical infrastructure.”