Last year, Lola Roney stepped out of her tiny, comfortable Montessori school, where she had been cradled from the time she was 3 through the eighth grade – and entered a large public magnet high school in Chicago.
To say she was shellshocked is an understatement.
Roney – who was accustomed to Chicago's Near North Montessori School, where there were 580 students total from preschool through eighth grade – entered Walter Payton College Prep, which has 1,800 students in ninth through 12th grades.
"It was difficult," said Roney, 15, who lives in the Edgewater neighborhood.
And she wasn't simply addressing the size of the school.
Montessori schools don't often focus on or even give grades (or standardized tests in some cases), nor do students progress at the same rate. Instead, students develop at their own interest and knowledge levels, said Mary Ellen Kordas, board president of the American Montessori Society. "In our middle school, we had students doing math from algebra 1 all the way to calculus," Kordas said.
Smaller schools with mixed ages in each classroom allow Montessori schools to teach at multiple levels and to have the children learn from one another, in contrast to public schools, which usually have one age per grade, Kordas said.
When it comes to high school, however, the majority of Montessori students go elsewhere.
There is no official count of Montessori schools in the United States because there isn't a national registry, but it's estimated that there are about 5,000 spanning preschool through eighth grade. Most of the students attending those schools transfer to a non-Montessori high school because there are only about 140 Montessori high schools.
These Montessori-educated students are usually surprised when they arrive at their new schools.
Roney said her biggest shock was the different relationship with teachers at public school.
"I used to have a closer relationship with the teachers," Roney said. Previously, she'd speak with her teachers one-on-one all the time, but now she has to make an effort to reach out to them if there's something she doesn't understand.
Also, at Montessori, Roney said, she felt she was learning information to really grasp the topic.
"In high school, it's like, 'We have to learn this because it's a requirement,' " Roney said. "It was surprising to have that different exposure and approach to learning."
The result of the two approaches is often reflected in test results of Montessori and traditionally educated students, said Lori Day, a Massachusetts-based educational psychologist and education consultant.
Day said that, while Montessori is a fantastic educational style for the early years, she's noticed that students who go to Montessori through eighth grade aren't always as prepared for high school.
"I experienced interviewing kids for high school admissions at my daughter's Massachusetts prep school, and I remember interviewing lovely Montessori kids, but they didn't have the level of academic material needed, and they didn't score as high on the SAT," Day said. "They seemed more prepared for a progressive education: schools that are not as hung up on grades, that do more narrative learning, hands-on learning."
Day said she noticed that parents often fall in love with the Montessori method and stick it out through eighth grade because they were so happy with it in the early years.
"They underestimate how hard it's going to be to change at the high school level," Day said.
Paula Blackwell, a high school teacher in Houston, said she also noticed that Montessori students stood out when they arrived at her public school.
The TV production and design teacher, who was a former school librarian, said many Montessori students had a high reading level.
But, she said, some have a hard time adjusting in the classroom.
"In the public schools, they need a lot of discipline and structure, because they didn't have as much discipline and structure before," she said.
Still, a long-term study in the journal Science found the effects of Montessori education on students were positive. Half of the 400 Wisconsin students in the study went to public school, and the other half went to Montessori, before both groups went to public high schools, graduating between 1997 and 2001.
The study found that the Montessori students significantly outperformed the public school students in math and science tests, and they scored similarly in English and social studies. Socioeconomic status could be a factor in the results, the study said.
Roney said she never had a problem adjusting to the academics when she began her new public school, only to the competitive nature of the students there, as opposed to the team approach encouraged at Montessori.
"At Near North Montessori, they teach you that you have to help each other to succeed – you have a similar goal," Roney said. "At (Walter Payton), it's much more competitive. You have to succeed for yourself – it's much more self-serving."
While the new school may be more competitive, Montessori students have learned how to be very self-directed and independent, which should help them, Kordas said.
Still, she said, these students would probably do best transferring to high schools that are similar to the Montessori method: those that encourage a personal or proactive approach to learning, or those that encourage students' voices to be heard in the curriculum.
"We are fortunate to be seeing more and more schools based on respecting student differences and allowing for self-paced learning," Kordas said.
Even students like Roney, who transitioned to a traditional public school, survived her first year and is looking forward to her sophomore year.
"The Montessori method really prepared me," she said. "I felt like I could have handled a lot."
Which is more than most high schoolers can say.