Making snacks and meals is one at-home, Montessori-aligned task recommended by Highland Community School as part of its distance learning program.

Learning during COVID-19: Highland Community School

School promptly launches Montessori distance learning with clear expectations for students, parents, and educators

By: Isral DeBruin

As schools shift to serve students remotely during the COVID-19 crisis, some are emerging as standouts. These schools aren’t stopping at basic worksheet packets and instead are offering their students coordinated, school-wide, comprehensive distance learning. City Forward Collective is highlighting these schools to spread best practices and encourage others to keep students moving forward.

You might guess that Montessori education couldn’t be adapted to distance learning. Don’t tell that to the educators at Highland Community School.

Highland launched distance learning Montessori-style on March 16, one day before Wisconsin’s statewide school closure took effect.

This recent backyard science lesson is one example of how Highland Community School is keeping students engaged in Montessori learning during COVID-19.

Montessori is known for its hands-on approach and family-like classroom culture, features that seem challenging to build into a distance learning program. But distance learning isn’t all video calls and apps — and neither is Highland’s approach.

Highland’s plan provides teachers with a set of clear daily and weekly expectations. The guide lays out how frequently educators communicate with children and their caregivers, what lessons and assignments look like, and which online learning tools to use.

For students and parents, a handbook lays out expectations for students, suggestions for how parents can get involved, and a list of what families can expect from teachers and administrators. An additional set of expectations and supports is provided for students with special needs.

The guide combines ideas from Montessori educators all over the world for how families can mirror the Montessori learning experience in their homes. This approach leads caregivers to use the contents of their homes and the happenings in their lives to continue fostering Montessori values like exploration, curiosity, and discovery.

“Distance learning” doesn’t always mean “online learning.” A student from Highland Community School uses a Hundred Board to build math skills, part of the school’s Montessori approach to remote instruction.

The guide — and ongoing support from Highland teachers — provides parents with ways to reinforce learning concepts through routine household tasks, like setting the table, preparing a meal, or getting groceries.

Montessori education emphasizes developing a child’s independence. That shows up in the guide’s suggestion that students be involved in setting up a space for their learning, making a schedule for their days, and gathering ideas and materials.

Two brothers collect specimens for a science lesson as part of Highland Community School’s Montessori distance learning program.

In some ways, the Montessori model’s focus on independence makes its students particularly well-suited for the self-directed nature of distance learning. That’s good, because Highland’s plan also involves plenty of more typical school activities. Students complete regular assignments, get feedback on classwork from teachers, and are taking on bigger tasks, like long-term research projects.

Throughout the plan, its creators were careful to consider students’ ages and stages of development to ensure appropriate expectations. It also prioritizes maintaining connectedness across the school community, so students, teachers, parents, and administrators communicate regularly. This includes ongoing instructional coaching for teachers.

After a four-week trial period, the Highland team gathered feedback, made some tweaks to the plan, and relaunched it, providing the Highland community with renewed expectations for the remainder of the school year.


Highland Community School is a public charter school authorized by the Milwaukee Board of School Directors.

  • Grades: K3–8
  • Enrollment: 416 students
  • Student demographics: 39.7% Black; 38.5% White; 10.3% Two or More Races; 9.9% Hispanic; 1.4% Asian; 0.2% American Indian
  • Students from economically disadvantaged households: 44%
  • Students with special needs: 13.2%
  • Students with limited English proficiency: 0.5%
  • State rating: Meets Expectations

2019–20 data from

Isral DeBruin is director of strategy and communication at City Forward Collective. He is a former elementary school teacher and award-winning education reporter.

Highland Community School’s distance learning program employs diverse approaches, including more traditional remote instruction via video.



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City Forward Collective

City Forward Collective

A Milwaukee nonprofit working with families, communities, and school teams to to foster more high-quality schools. Learn more: