By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Sep 21, 2016 at 2:02 PM

Did you know Milwaukee Public Schools has what might be the largest group of public Montessori schools in the world? It's definitely the largest in the United States.

Now, led by school board member Tati Joseph, there's a push to add a new South Side dual-language Montessori program to that community, and the district is hosting four public information sessions about it, beginning tonight.

MPS' Montessori programs – some of which are among the top-performing schools in the district, according to state report cards and other measures – are scattered across the Milwaukee landscape, including in Bay View (Fernwood and Howard Avenue), the East Side (Maryland Avenue), the West Side (MacDowell and Highland), the North Side (Lloyd Barbee) and the Northwest Side (Craig).

MacDowell expanded a couple years ago when it moved into the much larger former Juneau High building, which allowed Highland to move into and later purchase the former MacDowell, allowing it to grow, too. Howard Avenue was opened in 2012 to ease some of the immense pressure on the Fernwood waiting list, and now it also already has a waiting list.

Fernwood Montessori opened a new addition on Sept. 1, which will facilitate its growth, and Maryland Avenue Montessori is getting an addition that will open in time for the 2017-18 school year. But that space really is big enough only to accommodate existing enrollment, though the program, at 435 students, has already grown larger than it's ever been (in the district's 2011 long-range facilities plan, the school, which then had an enrollment of 373, was deemed to be at a 147 percent building utilization, which means it was already bursting at the seams).

But since the program at Kosciuszko fell apart on 9th and Windlake on the South Side (I won't bore you with the politics of that here), the near South Side has been without Montessori.

In the past few years, some had talked about a small program launching in the then-vacant 88th Street School, but that never took off and a new program has since moved into that space. Last year, a group of MPS teachers wrote a proposal for a South Side bilingual Montessori MPS charter school, but though that appeared to have legs, it faded due to a lack of funding.

Thanks now to school board member Joseph – who represents the near South Side – and others, there's this effort to open a public dual-language Spanish/English Montessori school somewhere in the neighborhood.

"The dual-language Montessori school is an exciting new project for MPS," Joseph told me this morning. "The school, which will be the first of its kind in Wisconsin, will combine two very strong programs to give children the opportunity to learn a second language in a Montessori setting.

"The dual-language programming will allow children the opportunity to learn a second language, a skill necessary in our current global economy."

But there's a lot to discuss – not the least of which is how to staff such a school and where it will be located. These are not insurmountable issues, nor are they cake.

There are very few open spaces available in existing MPS buildings on the South Side. In fact, there's exactly one that I can think of. So, if I were you, I'd bank on that site being the focus.

"Although a site is not known yet, I want to keep the school in the South Side of Milwaukee," says Joseph.

At the moment, that sounds like it would mean the vacant building on South 10th Street that was formerly home to Hayes Bilingual, which is now located in the former Kosciuszko building on 9th and Windlake.

Secondly, finding trained Montessori teachers has always been a challenge to scaling up the program city-wide. There has been no shortage of ideas over the years for Montessori programs in this building or that one, or expanding existing ones into bigger buildings, but actual growth has occurred only at a pace that availability of staffing has allowed.

That challenge is magnified when you add that a teacher must also be fluent in Spanish (and I'd think a native speaker would be preferred). Luckily, Milwaukee is home to the Montessori Institute of Milwaukee training center, where Allyn Travis – a respected Montessori trainer – has connections with Spanish-language Montessori trainers.

"The district is actively brainstorming ways to recruit teachers who are or are eligible to be certified in Montessori and bilingual education," Joseph told me. "Our advantage is that Montessori training is a global opportunity and countries like Mexico, Spain and Argentina have International Montessori training facilities compatible to the Montessori training we will need.

"Besides looking internationally, we hope to pave the way in understanding and establishing way to create teacher pipelines in Milwaukee where we can recruit and train our own."

Fortunately, this time around, the district appears to be fully invested in the idea.

"Our parents and students have expressed interest in more opportunities to enroll in Montessori schools and in more opportunities to learn languages. This new school offers students the opportunity to access both," said MPS Superintendent Dr. Darienne Driver in a statement that called the proposed program, "part of the district’s ongoing efforts to implement its Regional Development Plan to create more enrollment opportunities in high-performing schools."

The same news release suggested that the idea is being fast-tracked, too, so that the proposed school could be available for 2017-18 enrollment during the February '17 three-choice enrollment period.

You can find out more at the information sessions, the first of which is tonight at South Division High School, 1515 W. Lapham Blvd., from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. A morning meeting is slated for 8 to 9:30 a.m., Wednesday, Oct. 12, at the same location.

Two evening meetings – from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. – are also scheduled for Bay View High School, 2751 S. Lenox St.: Wednesday, Oct. 5 and Wednesday, Oct. 19. All are welcome and light refreshments will be served at each of the meetings.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.