An Inclusive Learning Community: Montessori School of Northern Virginia

Social Justice Synergy | Newsletter Article


For years, the Montessori School of Northern Virginia(MSNV), an independent school in the Washington, D.C. metro area, had been working to increase the school’s diversity.

“At first it was primarily focused on admissions,” says Beth Bell-Leresche, Director of Parent Engagement. We didn’t have enough applicants from under-represented groups. And we found that when we brought in these students, they wouldn’t stay.”

Many organizations might have stopped at that point, assuming they were doing their part to ensure diversity. However, MSNV wanted to know what was going wrong. After talking to parents, Beth said, they were dismayed to learn that the families of under-represented students didn’t feel welcome at the school.

That’s when MSNV began working with Social Justice Synergy to dig deeper into the issues around diversity and inclusion—and to begin crafting solutions.

Collecting Information

To understand the perceptions and needs of various constituencies within the MSNV community, and to ensure their participation in the journey toward inclusion, Iris Jacob of Social Justice Synergy conducted a series of focus groups with parents.

“Iris has a very genuine way about her,” says Beth. “The parents love her and she was able to get input on what they wanted. She’s able to facilitate group conversations with ease and make participants feel comfortable being open and honest.”

Gathering feedback from parents provided the information the school needed to assess where they were in regards to inclusion and equity. “The focus groups gave us the information we needed to move forward with a plan,” Beth says.

Taking Action

Iris led focus groups and training with staff and eventually provided training for the executive team, leading the group to creating a diversity and inclusion plan for the school.

“MSNV learned a lot of things,” says Iris. “It’s not always easy to deal with these issues and to change an established culture.”

“But MSNV really rose to the challenge to not only support students but to make a commitment to social justice as a school. It’s a very impressive group. I’m really excited about the progress they’re making.”

She’s also helping the school establish a parent/staff diversity and inclusion advisory council to make and implement plans, as well.

“Iris’s work has been indispensible in helping us understand where we are in terms of diversity and inclusion, and where we need to go,” says Beth. “We’ve changed and are changing as a result of her work. It’s an ongoing, long process for us. We have a lot of learning to do and growing as a community.”

“It’s been really great to have her. I would definitely recommend Iris to another group or school.”