Doug and Trish Sheridan chose Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ Montessori program 13 years ago, when their oldest son was a preschooler.
When Isaac Sheridan finished sixth grade at Chantilly Montessori, he had to leave the program (he’s a senior at East Mecklenburg High now). But by the time his sister Zayna came through, CMS was launching a Montessori magnet for seventh- and eighth-graders at Sedgfield Middle School, south of uptown Charlotte.
On Monday, 14-year-old Zayna will be part of the district’s latest innovation: She’ll join about two dozen classmates as ninth-graders in a new Montessori high school magnet.
One steamy morning last week, several of them gathered at school to paint picnic benches, where they’ll sit outside Sedgefield to eat lunch or study. Responsibility and teamwork are part of the Montessori philosophy, created by Italian educator Maria Monetessori. Students are encouraged to explore their interests, make decisions about how to learn (teachers shape their choices) and develop problem-solving strategies.
Doug Sheridan, who owns a mechanical contracting company, looked on. “They act like you want adults to act at work,” he said. “You truly get young adults, as opposed to grown children.”
Montessori elementary schools are wildly popular across the country and in CMS, where the magnets draw long waiting lists. The program is far less common in middle and especially high school.
The district’s decision to expand illustrates the kind of changes and challenges that lie ahead as CMS uses school choice to compete for students, diversify schools and improve academic outcomes. Middle school enrollment started small. As it built – there were 31 eighth-graders last year and will be 54 this year – CMS hesitated to commit to a high school because the district didn’t have a building available. Parents and faculty lobbied hard last fall, and Superintendent Ann Clark agreed to let them stay at Sedgefield this year while her staff works on finding a long-term home for a Montessori school covering grades 7-12.
That means the Zayna and her classmates will be part of what one board member called the student assignment jigsaw puzzle, with pieces that range from getting voter approval for school bonds to figuring out how to run magnet schools to open access to more students while protecting the quality of specialty programs.
While most freshmen are heading to CMS high schools with hundreds of classmates, Zayna says she likes staying in a school where she really knows everyone. A handful have come from other CMS middle schools, and one has been home-schooled, but all understand the Montessori philosophy. And as they brush paint and discuss strategies – how will they protect the painted tables from weather? – they’re becoming part of the family that will build a new school.
It will be a family legacy: The Sheridans have a son at Chantilly and another who will start prekindergarten there next year.