Barbara Rose Spitzer ’57 founded the first, integrated private school in Birmingham
by Coleen Dee Berry
In 1968, Barbara Rose Spitzer ’57 raised eyebrows in Birmingham, Ala., when she opened a Montessori school for 18 preschoolers in a church basement. Two years later, with close to 100 children enrolled in her Creative Montessori School, Spitzer decided an even bolder move was needed. “I wanted my school to be integrated,” she said. At that time, although Alabama public schools had been forced to integrate by federal court order, no integrated private school existed in Birmingham. All-white private schools operated as an escape hatch for parents unwilling to send their children to the desegregated public schools.
Spitzer’s decision was not popular. Birmingham was still confronting the legacy of its infamous, brutal civil rights clashes. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his landmark Letter from a Birmingham Jail in 1963 after he was arrested in the city during a protest of segregated downtown businesses. In September 1963, the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church by Ku Klux Klan members, which killed four young girls and injured 23 other congregants, horrified the nation.
With the help of Richard Arrington Jr., a family friend who would go on to become Birmingham’s first African-American mayor, Spitzer attended black churches to speak about the Montessori Method. In the fall of 1970, she began enrolling African-American children, making Creative Montessori the first private school in Birmingham to be integrated.
Residents had been skeptical enough about welcoming a Montessori school to the city. “A lot of people thought I must be a communist!” Spitzer said with a laugh. “And when I integrated the school, a lot of the parents did not like it at all. My first African-American students were two young girls, and I remember one white parent coming up to me and saying, very disapprovingly, ‘We didn’t realize you were going to have so many!’”
It was not easy, but Spitzer was undaunted. “Well, I just thought it was right thing to do. I grew up in Philadelphia, around blacks, Asians, whites, whatever, and I believed everyone needed to have the exposure to a good education.”
Now, 48 years after Spitzer held that first class in a church basement, the Creative Montessori School has christened a newly renovated school campus in her honor. A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Barbara Rose Spitzer campus was held Sept. 1, and Spitzer was there to welcome students, parents and guests.
Current Creative Montessori Executive Director Greg Smith said it was a fitting honor for the school’s founder. “I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for her to come here and start not only a Montessori school, but an integrated school—an integrated school that was her choice, not imposed by a (court) decision,” he said. “It was a powerful move on her part, a revolutionary decision. It was only natural that we name the campus after her, to honor her work and her vision.”
“Barbara is not just the founder of Creative Montessori, she is the foundation of the school,” said Brooke Coleman, a member of the school’s board of directors.
“She is truly committed to the Montessori Method. You can’t be an authentic Montessori school if you don’t care about the inclusion of every single child. That’s the legacy of her drive to integrate the school: our continuing commitment to diversity.”
Spitzer did not start out with a desire to teach. She decided to attend Wilson because her favorite teacher in high school—who instilled in her a lifelong love of Latin—had gone to Wilson and had always spoken highly of her time there. For a while, Spitzer thought of majoring in Latin, but ended up with a biology degree.
After graduation, she dreamed of a job in medical research. She received her master’s degree in zoology at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and then got a job at Sloan Kettering’s Walker Laboratory in Rye, N.Y., where she met her husband. When he received a job offer from the University of Alabama Birmingham Medical Center, they relocated to the city with their two young daughters.
Culture shock ensued. “I felt as if I had moved to foreign country,” Spitzer said. “When you went to a place like the liquor store, there was an entrance for whites and an entrance for blacks, and then you met at the same counter in front. It was totally ridiculous. Life there was very different; many things were shocking to me.”
Spitzer was also not happy with the quality of preschool education available to her children. While living in New York, she had encountered Montessori schools, and she decided to personally solve the preschool dilemma. She traveled back to New York to undertake Montessori preschool training, and on receiving her certificate, opened her school. Besides her daughters, many of her first 18 students were children of doctors and researchers at the UAB Medical Center “because the locals were really very mistrustful of what the school was about at first,” Spitzer said.
The Montessori Method, developed in the early 1900s by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori, is a child-centered, hands-on educational approach. Montessori education recognizes that children learn in different ways and accommodates all learning styles. Students are free to learn at their own pace, guided by teachers and an individualized learning plan. Children are grouped and taught in age ranges rather than specific grades.
“The idea was really very foreign to many people here at that time,” said Smith. “But word of mouth traveled very fast.”
Lula Skowronek was a student at Creative Montessori beginning in 1970, when she was 3 years old. Both her children have since attended and graduated from Creative Montessori and she also has served on the school’s board of directors. “I think one of the things that strikes me the most from my time as a student is how diverse the school really was and the impact it had on shaping my outlook on both race and religion,” Skowronek said. “Besides African-American children, there were Jewish children, Sikhs, Asians. And when I think about my peers growing up, many of those who weren’t at school with me were still feeling the influence of the previous generation’s prejudices.”
One of her favorite memories of her school days “was when we were allowed to help Barbara in the office, making copies on the ditto machine,” Skowronek said. And every Friday, the students would take their lunches to the nearby botanical gardens “and we’d spend the rest of the day doing our lessons in the garden.”
As the school gained in popularity, Spitzer trained for Montessori elementary education and later for toddler education, and expanded the school to encompass those age groups. Today the school is located on a two-acre campus in the Homewood section of Birmingham, and has more than 225 students enrolled and a waiting list that includes 72 toddlers.
Spitzer found her calling in the Montessori Method. “It allows students to have a great confidence in themselves; it develops both good self-esteem and a love of learning,” she said. “You use all your senses in Montessori classes. It embraces the joy of learning.”
According to the American Montessori website, students learn to think critically, work collaboratively and act boldly—“not all that different from Wilson’s love of learning goals,” Spitzer said.
Of all three age groups in her school, Spitzer said she most enjoyed teaching the toddler group. “They are so inquisitive, they just want to keep going and doing,” she said. “They are so lovable and willing to learn.” During in the 1990s, she undertook a special project for the older students—she began teaching Latin to the 10- to 12-year-olds.
Spitzer retired from teaching in 2005, but has remained on the school’s board of trustees. She estimates that “thousands” of children have passed through Creative Montessori’s doors. “A lot come back and visit. I’m a scrapbook person and I’ve kept a scrapbook for each year,” she said, “The graduates come back to look through them and they have a lot of fun remembering things.”
Those scrapbooks came in handy when the school was raising money for the new campus, Coleman said. “Barbara was very active in helping with the campaign. When we had parents of former students in as potential donors, Barbara would have the right scrapbook there, turned to the page with the photos of their children. And she remembered the name of every child in her scrapbooks.”
The school has remained committed to Spitzer’s mission, Smith said. “She has a very strong vision about Montessori education and she was adamant that everyone should have access to that education, regardless of color of your skin, the size of your income or where you lived in Birmingham,” he said. “She is a visionary in that respect. We do let parents know about the history of how the school was founded because we’re very proud of that legacy—and of Barbara.”