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Wildflower Schools: Creating a scalable, organic ecosystem of teacher-led, student-centered early learning environments

Wildflower is dramatically increasing the number of children accessing beautiful, innovative, child-centered early learning experiences.

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Updates: How has your idea changed or evolved throughout the Prize? What updates have you made to this submission? (1500 characters)

Our mentor helped us think through how to illustrate the risks associated with our idea and tell the story of the human centered design methods that we are using to prototype solutions. We took the opportunity to analyze which assumptions, if invalidated, would be most detrimental to our goals, and we revisited our assessments of the challenges that might limit our ability to live our principles, such as equity and teacher leadership. The results of that analysis appear throughout the reworked application. One example is our decision to highlight the relationship between our equity work and a) our prototyping of technology to empower Teacher Leaders and b) the impact of various school funding mechanisms. Though we’ve recruited experts to help us navigate both of these areas, it is important to highlight that Wildflower Schools exists in a larger ecosystem with significant inequality. The existing public funding mechanisms for early childhood education are often difficult to access, are insufficient in supply and amount, and follow the family, making them difficult to build into school-level business plans. Our values place us on a journey to disrupt the systemic barriers to providing an equitable early education experience for vulnerable children and create innovative early childhood environments that develop the extraordinary potential in every person: kids, families, and teachers alike.

Name or Organization

The Wildflower Foundation

Geography

Wildflower is headquartered in MN, with schools operating across the U.S. including Puerto Rico.

What is your stage of development?

  • Advanced Innovator with 3 to 10+ years of experience in ECD

Type

  • Non-profit

What is the stage of your proposal?

  • Full-scale roll-out: I have completed a pilot and analyzed the impact of that pilot on the users I am trying to reach with my idea. I am ready to expand the pilot significantly.

Describe how your solution could be a game-changer for your selected Opportunity Area (600 characters)

Wildflower seeks to radically increase the number of children from a variety of economic backgrounds benefiting from high-quality early learning experiences. We've developed a scalable platform for teachers to start and lead their own tiny Montessori schools within a network of support and mutual accountability. Our schools use time-tested, research-supported Montessori methods in one room, neighborhood-nested schools combined with promising new ideas in parent engagement, intentional diversity, teacher empowerment, and data-driven instruction. Our schools grow organically in diverse settings.

Select an Innovation Target

  • Business model: a better model with more effective structure or financing

Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)

Wildflower is an ecosystem of decentralized, open source Montessori schools, serving children in one-room, multi-age environments, aligned with the Montessori three-year age bands. A growing body of rigorous research shows that authentic Montessori leads to long-term positive impacts on academic and socioemotional objectives as well as closing achievement gaps between low-income children and their wealthier peers. From this foundation we build out several innovations: 1. Wildflower schools are teacher-led, with teachers managing administration. We support Teacher Leaders as they create and lead independently licensed, one-room schools with intentionally diverse student bodies. 2. Our model scales organically based on demand from families and teachers. By providing a platform for harnessing organic energy, Wildflower represents a new way to accelerate growth. 3. Our open source utilities support Teacher Leaders in student observation and school administration. We're building formative assessment into the physical environment and and building network-wide systems to help teachers simplify administrative tasks. The result is conceptually consistent schools that are child-centered with active roles for parents and a commitment to research and innovation. Crucially, our schools are the right size to avoid obstacles to scaling such as shortages of facilities and administrative leadership talent.

What problem are you aiming to solve? (3 sentences)

Our factory-like education system ignores the overwhelming body of research on how children develop, what motivates adults, and what families need. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of our investment starts at age 5 despite clear evidence that the most rapid development occurs in the first few years of life. As a result, children are not thriving (11% of low income children graduate from college), teachers are not thriving (lowest job satisfaction level in 40 years), and our society suffers.

Explain your idea (5000 characters)

Wildflower schools start early. Recognizing that loving, whole-family environments and research-backed learning methods are crucial to the child’s development, we are building a foundation for children and families at what is, developmentally, the most important time of their lives. We seek to build Wildflower schools on the strong foundation of Dr. Maria Montessori’s observations about childhood development from the first half of the last century. Dr. Montessori developed a complete educational method, and we implement it with fidelity. A substantial body of research demonstrates authentic Montessori to be one of the very few educational models that makes a lasting impact on young children in ways that matter over the long term. A 2003 meta-analysis of 29 school models found Montessori to be among the top five in terms of student outcomes (Borman 2003). More recently, the largest study yet conducted of authentic Montessori practice in a high-needs public school setting found that Montessori education greatly reduced the achievement gap across the preschool years (Lillard 2017). In several areas, we incorporate new ideas that reflect recent research in the learning and development sciences, including our recognition that -- even within the Montessori community -- schools are too often large and institutional, staff often relate to each other in rigidly hierarchical ways, and parents often feel unwelcome. To Dr. Montessori’s work, we add organizational approaches that respect teachers and families and support their development into more aware, connected, and complete human beings, as cataloged by Frederic Laloux in his book Reinventing Organizations. One particular area of innovation is our development of new technology to support teacher observation by embedding sensors into the Montessori environment to track the choices children make about what to work on, their level of concentration, and even their progress and challenges over time. Because Montessori methods rely on the superhuman observational powers of the teacher to observe and record data, we see these technologies as the key to a new type of synthesis of data-driven and child-centered educational strategies that blur the boundary between teacher and scientist. By combining the best of child-driven learning and data-driven instruction, we are building systems and tools to capture data on student activities and progress from the physical environment. In addition to the observation-enhancing sensor technology mentioned above, we’re building utilities that connect parents and teachers with their children’s learning and lesson planning and other supports that significantly reduce administrative burdens such as admissions and finance, allowing teachers to handle school management tasks that usually require additional staff. These approaches enable a network of tiny, shopfront, teacher-led autonomous schools, united by Montessori pedagogy and shared values. Such a system offers profound new possibilities: an environment where the deepest intuitions of teachers, children, and families draw each other and their communities toward an environment optimized for human development; an environment where the desires of parents and teachers translate into organic growth. For more information, please see our website at https://wildflowerschools.org/ and our annual report at https://wildflowerschools.org/annual-report/.

Who benefits? (1500 characters)

Students & families: everything we know about early childhood development and learning integrated into one package - child-centered Montessori practices, empowered teachers, small size, neighborhood integration, intentional diversity, beautiful environments, and data-driven instruction through the use of observation support technologies. This is available to some families at 25% less than comparable private schools, and to low-income families at a level that fits within existing child-care subsidies. Responding to local families and prioritizing equity is integrated into our organizational design. Teachers: the opportunity to start and run their own schools free from the bureaucracies of larger schools; a career track that encourages professional growth and supports a higher salary without needing to leave the classroom. Wildflower is largely built and shaped by veteran Montessori teachers. Communities: a spark to redevelopment efforts that aligns with many top priorities such as urban renewal, livable and walkable communities, and voluntary integration, among others. The Wildflower Foundation provides a vision for community-school fusion, while Wildflower Schools are built by and for local communities. Without community demand and leadership, Wildflower Schools don't happen.

What kind of impact will your idea have? (1500 characters)

Our business model and network of support will enable the creation of many, many Wildflower schools that will offer exceptional early educational opportunities to a diverse set of children and families. Our direct impact is in service of the children in our schools, their families and in the professional satisfaction of our teachers. Research demonstrates long-term positive impacts on both academic and socioemotional development from just a few years of early exposure to a Montessori environment. Our teachers often report that while it is hard work to create and operate a school, they are providing the best Montessori education of their lives, and we aim to gather systematic data on teacher and family satisfaction in the near future. We also have an impact on community design and development, as the Wildflower idea sparks local energy toward building more livable communities and shifting schooling to more human-scaled settings. Our experience to date is that this process begins as soon as a few Wildflower schools sprout in a new community. Finally, we take an open source approach to our learnings and technology development. Thus, our administrative utilities and observation support technologies can serve as the foundation for other efforts to develop microschool models or develop passive formative assessment technologies in other pedagogical settings.

How does or how could your idea impact low-income children? (1500 characters)

The marginalization of low-income children exists amidst a web of aggressions against them, including through institutional learning. In harmful cycles, life struggles become academic struggles. Communities struggle, segregation increases, structures of support are overwhelmed, and communities struggle even more. We address this at two levels. First, our micro-Montessori approach allows us to focus on the whole child at a deeply personal level. Montessori education substantially decreases the gap in achievement across preschool years between children from higher and lower income families. Furthermore, very small schools have substantially lower correlations between economic backgrounds and academic success. Second, we work against segregation by serving intentionally diverse families within each school. We do this by a) locating schools in diverse neighborhoods, b) through tools allowing schools to access to public funding, and c) through a business model that reduces costs and utilizes cross-subsidization across student bodies. Today, 52% of Wildflower families attend a publicly funded school or pay reduced tuition. We build support structures and engage in reflective work to create supportive, high-quality classrooms for all families. We recruit teachers from racially and socioeconomically diverse backgrounds and build pathways to teaching through our fellowship program. We also host online "Embracing Equity" dialogues for the broader Montessori community.

Innovation: What makes your concept innovative? (5000 characters)

Wildflower provides an innovative platform that allows teachers to create and run their own one-room, intentionally-diverse, authentic Montessori schools as social entrepreneurs, and overcomes many of the barriers to scaling quality early childhood education. We do this through the development of new technologies that support micro-school administration, new methods of accessing public funding, and a distinctive culture and set of processes. While other scalable platforms exist in support of teacher-entrepreneurs, Wildflower is unique among them for its strong Montessori pedagogy and the balance we strike between teacher-autonomy and shared commitment to quality. With respect to more traditional educational settings, our Montessori approaches continue to be innovative - despite a century of evidence demonstrating the power of the approach. Wildflower’s overall disruptive potential is realized when our principles are woven together with a network structure of mutual accountability, support, and self-governance. Our decentralized system upholds quality through information transparency and mutual accountability among small pods of schools and a rigorous licensing system. The foundation of our ability to grow is demand from Teacher Leaders and families and -- while it’s hard to project the number of Wildflower schools in the future -- our model is designed to grow exponentially, and exponential growth would lead to many, many Wildflowers over the coming decades with ripple effects across the early childhood ecosystem. Finally, we’re breaking new ground on the use of technology to support teacher observation - as described above.

Scale: Describe how your idea could reach a significant number of end-users. (1500 characters)

Wildflower's de-centralized model is designed to scale organically based on demand from families, teachers, and community leaders. We have found that the schools themselves are our biggest draw. Current Wildflower communities spur demand in nearby neighborhoods; thrilled teachers introduce friends and colleagues to the possibility of creating and operating their own schools. Early signs are very positive, and word of mouth brings new teachers and families to us every week. Wildflower was founded with just one school in 2014. We start 2018 as a network of 14 micro Montessori schools led by teachers, together serving over 240 children, ages six weeks to 17 years. Of those, 189 are children under six and in 2018 we expect to open at least ten more schools serving early learners and their families. The infrastructure that we have put in place for training, peer-community, administrative, financial, and regulatory support is part of what has enabled our growth in addition to our business model that decreases the cost of providing the high-quality education that every child deserves.

Feasibility: Where are you with understanding the feasibility of your idea? Describe what you’ve done so far and your plans. (3000 characters)

The core Montessori model is deeply tested - with more than 20,000 schools globally. And with 14 schools created to date, we’ve already demonstrated the feasibility of our micro-school delivery model. Still, many components of our total approach still need to be confirmed. One of the core assumptions of Wildflower’s approach relies on the entrepreneurship of teachers who are both teaching and running administration in their small schools. We overwhelmingly hear from our current teachers that they are confident that they’re doing the best work of their lives but that the administrative burden is still huge. Our goal is to reduce Teacher Leader time spent on administrative tasks to approximately five hours per week, but -- by our last time-tracking study -- teachers are currently spending closer to 30 hours per week on administrative tasks. We are just getting started and we feel confident that with time we can continue to dramatically reduce that number. Some of the utilities we have developed include: - Admissions utility that allows parents to schedule visits and complete forms online with “wizards” for entering common information once; - Enrollment management system to track paperwork and enrollment status in multiple languages; - Administrative platforms for budgeting, accounting, and maintaining compliance with early education subsidy systems; - Montessori record-keeping platforms that integrate our sensor-collected data with lesson planning; and - School startup roadmap that bundles the necessary tools Teacher Leaders need to manage the pipeline of tasks for creating a school. Another as yet untested aspect of our approach is whether we can retain the essential features of the microschool model using a charter school governance umbrella. We have applied for and received our first charter (in Minnesota), and have retained some of the most capable people within the charter authorizing community to help us develop our approach. The first charter-governed schools in Minnesota launch this fall. Finally, our observation support technologies are cutting edge technologies. We’ve already gone through several release cycles. Between the tools we already have released into classrooms and the ones we’ve prototyped in the lab, we think we’ve already reached the point of demonstrating the feasibility of developing these tools.

Business Viability: How viable is your business model? (5000 characters)

As the supportive backbone of the Wildflower network of schools, The Wildflower Foundation will charge each school a modest fee (3-5% of revenue) to support Foundation efforts such as technology and utilities development and offering shared tools for use across the network. We expect that -- once we have a critical mass of schools -- those affiliation fees will collectively cover the costs of the Foundation so that we rely on decreasing levels of philanthropic support. Until the Foundation reaches financial sustainability, we require philanthropic support and have been very pleased to see the positive way that people are responding to our work. Since the Foundation incorporated in 2016, we have raised over $10 million, however some of our nontraditional efforts such as our sensor technology development initiatives don’t fit in most conventional grantmaking programs. Funding from the Early Childhood Innovation Prize would allow us to continue to prototype and take the necessary time to gain feedback from our Teacher Leaders as we build tools to enhance their entrepreneurship and lighten their administrative burden. Wildflowers Schools themselves can grow in many different environments and can be independent, public charter, public district, or partnerships with institutions such as churches, affordable housing, universities, and more. We are agnostic to school governance model and seek to maximize the possibilities of serving families where they live and work. Beyond the startup and training phases (when schools are supported by startup loans from the Foundation), each Wildflower is designed to be self-sustaining on public funding or a blend of tuition and direct-to-family voucher funding. Our currently established schools have already demonstrated their feasibility, and many have already reached financial sustainability.

HCD: How have you used human centered design to build or refine your concept? (5000 characters)

Human centered design is in Wildflower’s DNA. Montessori education itself arose from Maria Montessori’s study of low-income children starting in Rome then across the world, and she developed a complete pedagogical model informed by students as the guides of their own learning journey. From there, we are designing tools to empower Teacher Leaders, incorporate data-driven instruction into the Montessori environment, and invite parents to actively engage. We use an iterative, user-oriented approach when building our software utilities and sensor technology to enhance the entrepreneurship of teachers and learning experiences of our students and families. We've also hired a staff member with over 17 years of expertise working in user experience. He focuses on building user empathy through principles and practices drawn from Design Thinking to inform the creation of humane interfaces and experiences. To stay deeply grounded in the needs of our users, we take each utility through discrete pilots and are disciplined in our process: investing to learn about user needs, building a minimum viable product, testing it with teachers in real classroom environments, and prototyping. As we iterate, we gather real time input from Teacher Leaders on their challenges and we conduct surveys to determine how much time they are spending on administrative tasks so that we can prioritize solutions with them. We believe there are many more tools we can build to enhance the experiences of teachers, students, and families, and are starting with the most urgent needs expressed by our Teacher Leaders and Wildflower families.

Tell us more about you (3000 characters)

Wildflower is an ecosystem of mutually supportive, open-source Montessori microschools that blur the boundaries between homeschooling and institutional schooling, between schools and the neighborhoods around them, between teachers and scientists. At the core of the Wildflower approach are nine principles and two core practices of compassionate kindness and precise, nonjudgmental observation. The first Wildflower school, Wildflower Montessori, opened in 2014 as a single shopfront early childhood education program created by MIT Media Lab Professor Sep Kamvar who -- when unable to find a school which combined Montessori education, an inclusive family environment, and a responsive school size -- was inspired to create one. A professor and scientist, Sep sought the support of experienced Montessori leaders to design the school and to identify ways in which the long history of experimentation and scientific practice in Montessori could be linked to his research. In the spring of 2016, Matt Kramer joined the team as The Wildflower Foundation’s first CEO after ten years of leadership at Teach For America. Our inspiration and ongoing dedication to the work comes in part from personal experiences with the Montessori philosophy and environment: Sep and Matt were both “Montessori kids” and are Montessori parents, as are many other Wildflower staff members. Sharing the joy and richness of that experience inspires our work. Developments in cognitive science are of particular interest to us, especially as they relate to the importance of early childhood as a profoundly formative time with long-term effects on a person’s well being. This research points to Montessori as a particularly powerful approach to encouraging and building vital skills in early life - and for children from a range of backgrounds. Teachers are the cornerstone of a child’s educational experience, and we believe that one of the most powerful aspects of our model is teacher leadership. Instead of answering to administrators and policy makers further and further from the classroom, our teachers have real freedom to be social entrepreneurs. Based on prior experience, we know well the challenges of sparking teacher leadership outside of the classroom, in large part because the general educational environment is currently so hostile to their leadership - and we know the power of entrepreneurship - both social and technological - to unleash leadership. We are inspired to create and maintain a model that blends teacher support with the use of data to lower barriers to teacher leadership to accomplish the complementary goals of educational outcomes and teachers’ professional satisfaction.

Do you have the people and partners you need to do what you’ve described? (600 characters)

We are building a strong team to accomplish our goals. The Wildflower Foundation currently employs 30 staff, many of whom share roles across the Foundation and in Wildflower schools. Our staff’s knowledge comes from a wide variety of experiences, including managing national education nonprofits, early childhood education, Montessori education, scaling social ventures, software engineering, sensing technologies, and more. We have developed strategic partnerships with The MIT Media Lab, Transparent Classroom, and the University of Virginia’s Early Development Lab.

As you consider your next steps, what kinds of help could you use? Is there a type of expertise that would be most helpful? (1800 characters)

We would find value in expertise across multiple dimensions of our work, including distributed networks and franchising and nonprofit capital structure for school loans. On the tech side, we are facing a classic design challenge whereby we have engineers who can imagine a world of possibility in how we might capture data, but not necessarily what will be useful for the Montessori teacher, and -- on the flip side -- we are designing for Montessori teachers who have a better grasp on what’s useful, but don’t know the world of possibility of what we can engineer. We’ve been working through this challenge over the past year, with many promising results. Specifically, we could use help around data visualization so that we can make our rich data collection usable and easily understandable for both our teachers and our partners.

Would you like mentoring support?

  • Yes

If so, what type of mentoring support do you think you need? (1200 characters)

We are especially interested in mentorship around distributed leadership models, specifically around how we can best balance elevating the entrepreneurship of Teacher Leaders with sharing the benefits of emerging learnings and best practices. We look forward to receiving feedback from our peer participants and would love to discuss possible connections that might be a good fit for our organization.

Are you willing to share your email contact information submitted on OpenIDEO with Gary Community Investments?

  • Yes, share my contact information

[Optional] Biography: Upload your biography. Please include links to relevant information (portfolio, LinkedIn profile, organization website, etc).

Matt Kramer, our CEO, led Teach For America as it’s Chief Program Officer, then President, then Co-CEO, for over a decade of rapid growth including a 10x increase in fundraising, 4x increase in alumni and 2.5x increase in corps size; before that, he was a partner at McKinsey & Co. serving a mix of educational and financial institutions. https://www.linkedin.com/in/matthewlkramer/

Mentorship: How was your idea supported? (5000 characters)

Our mentor provided thoughtful feedback on our idea, informing how we articulate the challenges we are facing, including asking whether entrepreneurship was attainable for a wide array of teachers. We agree that structures within most school systems may not drive teachers toward entrepreneurship. When we hear from veteran Montessori teachers that they are doing the best work of their lives in Wildflower schools, we understand that their previous teaching experience -- even within some of the best institutional schools -- did not place them in an environment optimized for their own growth. We are informed by the work of Daniel Pink in our belief that every person -- after their basic human needs are met -- strives toward autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and we also extend Dr. Montessori’s observations about childhood development to our belief that adults are fundamentally good, peaceful, and capable. Leading thinking about organizational design is evolving in parallel with our understanding of human consciousness, and new models like ours are emerging to maximize human potential, liberating energy that often lies dormant in most organizations. Revisiting these ideas helps us articulate why the demand we are experiencing from Montessori teachers is so groundbreaking. We know we have much more work to do to address the stubborn obstacles to entrepreneurship in early childhood education, and we continue to grow in our capacity to support would-be entrepreneurs. We are excited to see the innovation and diversity these entrepreneurs will continue to introduce to Wildflower and the greater early childhood ecosystem.

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Photo of May Aldwais
Team

Thanks for this amazing idea! what an important topic that needed our attention to the quality of education and learning and I also love the fact that it targets people from different income level. All the best.

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