DADE CITY, Fla. – LaTania Scott and Kameeka Shirley were former public school teachers who wanted something different when they opened their own school in January 2023.
Something … authentically Montessori … accessible to families from all walks of life … embedded with the autonomy that’s often missing from traditional schools.
The result is Blazing Stars Montessori, another shining example of what’s possible when teachers have more power to create their own models.
“We wanted our school to be a path to peace for our community,” said Shirley.
Blazing Stars is a private microschool. It has 25 students in grades PreK-3, with plans to grow to 47 in grades PreK-6. It’s also intentionally diverse. And in a semi-rural area.
In many states, that combo would make it an anomaly. In school-choice-rich Florida, it’s another one of 1,000 educational flowers in bloom.
Former public school teachers like Scott and Shirley are behind many of those blooms.
Scott is a 17-year public school veteran. Shirley is a Teach for America alum.
The autonomy they have from creating their own school means they have the power to pivot when their families or students need something different. Or when they do.
“We can’t be our best selves for our children if we’re not taking care of ourselves,” Shirley said. “That was missing from the bigger education space.”
Blazing Stars is affiliated with Wildflower Schools, an acclaimed network of teacher-led Montessori microschools that got its start 10 years ago. Wildflower has since sprouted more than 60 schools nationwide, and expects to hit 200 within five years.
Blazing Stars represents several encouraging story lines that get more pronounced every day.
- More options for everyone. Florida now has more than 2,000 private schools participating in state-supported education scholarship programs (and a net gain of 700+ private schools in the past 10 years). Those schools run the gamut with their approaches to teaching and learning, and in the communities they serve. For example, more than 100 Montessori schools are in the mix.
- More access for all. Florida leads the nation in education choice. This year, state lawmakers enacted the largest-ever expansion of K-12 scholarships. These scholarships, worth approximately $7,800, are available to help all students cover tuition or other education-related expenses of their choice, making Florida’s diverse options more accessible. This story remains a work in progress at Blazing Star. More on that in a sec.
- More teachers are becoming entrepreneurs. Growing numbers of former public-school teachers are creating their own schools (and other learning options), in line with their visions and values. These pioneers are showing other teachers what’s possible.
Teachers of color are a distinctive force among them.
Of the 436 schools in the Black-Owned Schools Directory maintained by Black Minds Matter, 74 are in Florida. A recent survey of those founders by Black Minds Matter and Step Up For Students found 64% are former public school teachers, and one in five created non-traditional models like microschools and hybrid homeschools.
Scott and Shirley said in the wake of the turbulence of the past few years – Scott mentioned COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd – they wanted a school that would offer a respite for themselves, their children, and like-minded families. That’s the “path to peace” Shirley mentioned.
Blazing Stars’ founders say they want to connect families who are diverse in multiple ways – not just race and income, but politics and ideology – and offer a learning community that builds bridges. “These are families who otherwise might not come together,” Shirley said. But in the end, “we’re all people who love our children and want them to do well in the world.”
The Montessori way is also key to the Blazing Stars vision of peace.
Scott fell in love with Montessori as an undergraduate at Xavier University in Cincinnati, where she immersed herself in the university’s Montessori lab school. She recalls being awestruck watching students in a learning environment where they had more agency over their own learning.
“They were moving around the space like they were gliding. They were so focused on what they were working on. That for me was the magic,” she said. “No yelling, no screaming, no fighting. No chaos. It was like a beautiful piece of art.”
Scott and Shirley purposely set up in Dade City, a town of 7,275 on the edge of metro Tampa. Their demographic analysis showed the fast-growing area had the multi-faceted diversity they wanted. And with choice scholarships, they knew what they offered would be widely accessible.
Making that leap from working in a school to founding one, though, wasn’t a breeze. “We were terrified,” Shirley said.
They’ve had to overcome some of the same hurdles that often dog other education entrepreneurs.
For example, Scott and Shirley obtained a childcare license for their facility in 2022. They needed that to operate a preschool that can accept the state’s preschool scholarships. But the rules for operating a K-12 private school are different, and those rules required the facility to have a sprinkler system.
The first estimate they got for that system was $97,000. “I fell into a ball of tears,” Scott said.
Without the sprinklers, Blazing Stars couldn’t participate in Florida’s K-12 education scholarship programs as planned. Thankfully, the Black Wildflowers Fund, a sister organization to Wildflower Schools that supports Black teacher leaders, helped Scott and Shirley through the delay, along with other organizations. Then they found a contractor who offered a much better deal. Blazing Stars is now on track to accept scholarship students this fall.
In the meantime, having the power to operate a school the way they and the families they serve want, without being constrained by somebody else’s agenda, is proving to be well worth it.
Blazing Stars “is a happy safe place for our kids,” Shirley said. “And for us too.”