South Charlotte

Middle schoolers thrive in Montessori magnet

After having more than doubled its student population, the district's first and only middle school Montessori magnet program is focused on continued growth.

The program, housed in a tucked-away wing of Sedgefield Middle in south Charlotte, recently had an open house for parents of current and prospective students to hear how the schooling method plays out in an adolescent classroom.

The intimate, community-like program, for seventh- and eighth-graders, started in fall 2010 with two teachers and only 23 students.

One year later, there are 56 students.

Dr. Mark Robertson, the principal of Sedgefield Middle, also oversees the Montessori program.

Lauding the young program to parents at the open house, Robertson, an educator for 32 years, said the adolescent Montessori program was "the most exciting thing I've done."

Though they share a building and the students wear the same uniforms of navy shirts and khaki bottoms, the traditional Sedgefield Middle and its Montessori counterpart might as well be two different businesses sharing the same office park.

Maria Montessori, an Italian pediatrician, developed the unconventional teaching method that bears her name in the early 20th century.

Central to the Montessori teaching method is the concept that all students learn differently, and students should feel free to explore the style that works well for them.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' three Montessori elementary schools - Chantilly, Park Road and Highland Mill- are some of the district's most popular magnets. They include pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds and have extensive waiting lists.

Park Road and Highland Mill include sixth grade and feed into Sedgefield Montessori. Next year, Chantilly will as well.

Right now, all the students in the Sedgefield program attended Montessori elementary schools.

CMS is joining a national trend by expanding the Montessori philosophy to adolescents.

Local private schools did it first: Countryside Montessori School, in northeast Mecklenburg, has a Montessori middle school and added a high school in the last few years. Omni Montessori School has a Montessori middle school on a Waxhaw farm.

Because Sedgefield is still a public school, it's considered a hybrid Montessori.

The curricula have the same benchmarks and students take the traditional end-of-grade tests as traditional students, but the way the material is covered is different.

Rather than daily homework, the Montessori students might be given a set of assignments on Monday that aren't due until Friday. This allows students more time to process the concepts, seek help when needed and learn to manage their time.

Students are in multiage classrooms, and lessons are usually geared toward only four or five students at a time.

The other students could be doing something different, as they process the material individually.

At the open house, Anthony Hiller, who teaches humanities (social studies, language arts and philosophy) and used to work on the traditional side of Sedgefield Middle, talked about a student who was very artistic but hated writing.

To engage him on an assignment to list 25 fundamental human rights, Hiller told him he could include cartoon illustrations with each right he listed.

That simple departure from the norm took an assignment from daunting to fun.

The program's math and science teacher, Carolyn Little, said she used to think Montessori was all "fluff."

But after learning more about it, she decided to enroll her two children in CMS Montessori schools and realized the results spoke for themselves.

She left Providence High's environmental science department to join the start-up in 2010.

A number of successful businessmen and leaders attended Montessori schools, including: Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com; Julia Child; Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; and Prince William and Harry of the British Royal family.

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin credit their years in Montessori school as a major factor behind their success.

Jim and Tina Mitchem, whose two children go to Chantilly Montessori, attended the open house at Sedgefield to learn more about the middle school program.

Though they recognize the Montessori method might not be for every child, they said it's been invaluable in their children's development.

"They're not TV kids," said Tina. "Their imaginations are still very strong. They're self-directed.... They love finding the answer, the learning part of it."

At Sedgefield Montessori, students are encouraged to advocate for themselves, which is why teachers give out their cell phone numbers and email addresses.

"I'd rather get a text or email from them than a phone call from a parent saying their student couldn't do the homework," said Hiller. "That's a life skill."

These sort of grow-up-fast experiences help students learn to think for themselves, formulate questions and verbalize their struggles.

These skills will serve them well in a traditional high school setting, Little said, and most of all, they'll have a love of learning that will extend far beyond the classroom and formal schooling.

Right now there is no Montessori high school program, but Robertson said he'd love to see CMS start one.

Hiller and Little said the transition from Montessori to a traditional classroom is typically a smooth one, as former Montessori students are self-starters and know how to advocate for themselves.

"We don't want our students to say 'I'm doing this to get an A,' "said Little. "We want them to say, 'I'm doing this because I want to learn.'"

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