Brandon Royce-Diop ’07 has spent his entire career working to improve racial equity in educational systems, and the Saint John’s University graduate sees his current job – as a partner at Wildflower Foundation and Schools – as another step in those efforts.
Wildflower is an independent nonprofit organization supporting a network of Montessori schools, which operate under an educational approach developed over 100 years ago by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori. It offers teachers the freedom to tailor learning to the individual strengths, interests and educational levels of each child.
Royce-Diop and his partner Maya Soriano (a 2008 graduate of the College of Saint Benedict) are the co-directors of the Minnesota Wildflower Equity Initiative, which supports Black, Indigenous and persons of color in obtaining skills and resources necessary to open and lead Wildflower Montessori schools in their communities.
The Initiative is modeled after the original work of Soriano, who founded Lirio Montessori School (a Wildflower School) in South Minneapolis – where she is a Co-Lead Teacher-Leader with her partner Susana Rodriguez.
It’s a continuation of work in which Royce-Diop has taken a leadership role in various jobs over the past decade - including efforts to address the disproportionate discipline and suspension rates faced by African American male students in Minnesota, as well as developing and coordinating initiatives that foster equity and inclusion in school settings.
Now he’s helping Black and Indigenous persons open schools in their own communities through Wildflower.
“I see Montessori as an opportunity for us to reframe and rethink the purpose and the process of education, and I see a natural connection between Montessori’s pedagogy and traditional African and Indigenous practices and tenants of education,” he said.
“I think that parents in the community recognize the need for a different approach. There are many Montessori schools in our community that have already been started. There’s an appetite for it. People and parents know that their children are not being treated with the love and respect they deserve and also are not getting the academic outcomes they need in order to excel at the next level.”
Royce-Diop’s work is motivated in part by the DeLaSalle High School graduate’s own experiences in the educational system, including his four years at Saint John’s. He describes them as difficult because of racism he said he encountered during his time on campus, as well as areas in which he found much room for improvement when it came to creating a more inclusive atmosphere – especially for African-American students.
“My first year at Saint John’s, I experienced a lot of racism and a lot of it was rooted in ignorance,” said Royce-Diop, who considered transferring but remained, playing four seasons in both football and baseball. “I actually scheduled a meeting with the president (Br. Dietrich Reinhart) at the time. We sat down and I explained how I thought increasing the critical mass of students of color was absolutely necessary – particularly African-American students because a lot of the population of Black folks at Saint John’s then were students from the Bahamas or Trinidad or Jamaica or West Africa.
“There was not a concentrated number of African-American students there, which was important because the Black experience in the Caribbean is very different from the Black experience here in North America. So one of my many pushes with him was to increase diversity.”
Royce-Diop also urged requiring all students to take a racial equity, diversity and inclusion class during their first year on campus. He says efforts to expand diversity are not enough if they are not coupled with more deep-seated institutional changes.
“What classes folks are taking. The types of classes being offered. That there are real safe spots created for students of color to express themselves,” he said. “There has to be overall a much more concerted effort toward inclusion, because diversity without inclusion is a recipe for disaster.”
Part of increasing inclusiveness in education means increasing the numbers of teachers of color in schools. Royce-Diop passed his Minnesota Teacher Licensure Examinations teaching exams last July, completing a process he said took a decade for a variety of reasons – including a system he said makes it harder for some students to navigate.
“It took me 10 years to get through to this point for many reasons – life being one of them,” he said.
“But also because the system is not set up for the success of people who can’t afford to teach for three months for free. The student-teaching process is not conducive to supporting poor Black and brown folks especially in terms of becoming teachers.”
He said that’s why there is a need for different approaches - like the efforts he is involved with now, which offer the benefit of smaller class sizes, more empowered teachers and more room for individualized instruction.
He also says the approach currently taken toward funding education is in need of reform. He cites practices like redlining – in which government agencies and/or the private sector put financial and other needed services out of reach in certain neighborhoods and communities – as having contributed to a wide gap in the property tax rates that fund schools in both core city and more suburban districts.
“If you look at a school in a community that was redlined in 1950, and whose average tax base is now $2,000 less than say a community in Eden Prairie, then you multiply those numbers by the tens of thousands of students in those school districts, you find yourself with a tremendous gap. And that manifests itself in many ways,” he said.
“The aesthetic beauty of a school, for example, plays a big role in how students feel about that school. And the type of teachers they have, and the training they’ve received, matters a lot. Many experienced teachers don’t want to deal with the issues that are going on in some of these public schools in the inner cities because they don’t have the resources. They’re underfunded. And they don’t want to be in those types of situations.
“The most experienced teachers flee to the suburbs and it’s the most inexperienced teachers who are teaching in these communities. So we have an economic gap, then we have an experience gap.”
Royce-Diop added that teachers as a whole need to be paid more, bringing their salaries in line with the value they bring to our society.
“We wouldn’t pay doctors $40,000 a year to start to do their work, because we value their work in this society in a different way than we do educators and that’s unacceptable.”
He said efforts like those he is now involved with at Wildflower have the potential to make a real difference in Minneapolis and St. Paul. But they need support to be sustainable.
His organization helps recruit Montessori-trained Black and Indigenous teachers, as well as assisting educators with the grants and low-interest loans needed to reach the start-up phase. They also offer a hyper-localized curriculum that can be used as a starting off point.
Funding for students can come through the state public education system, as part of public charter schools, as well as through private scholarships.
As an example, Lirio Montessori, a two-way Spanish immersion school located in the Lake Street corridor in Minneapolis opened in 2018 and has a long waiting list. Soriano described its funding approach in an interview on the Wildflower website.
Royce-Diop said more success stories like that are needed.
“This method has such incredible potential, but it’s also something that has traditionally been very difficult for low-income people to access,” he said.
“What we’re trying to offer is an affordable opportunity for the kind of higher-quality education that in a traditional Montessori program would cost $5,000 to $10,000 a year.
“Making possible such schools, owned and operated by Black and indigenous people representative of their own communities, is another step on the road toward achieving educational equity, racial justice and liberation for all.”
To find out more about Wildflower’s efforts, visit the organization’s website.