Education

Montessori parents cling to hope for CMS high school in 2016

Parents lobbying for a CMS Montessori high school attended the school board’s Oct. 27 meeting to press their case.
Parents lobbying for a CMS Montessori high school attended the school board’s Oct. 27 meeting to press their case. ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

Earlier this fall, parents of eighth-graders at Sedgefield Middle School’s Montessori magnet program were jubilant at the prospect of pioneering a new Montessori high school for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Now they’re waging a down-to-the-wire struggle to keep that hope alive.

“We felt like we had all this momentum going,” said parent Dara Whittle.

CMS had paid a Sedgefield teacher to draw up a plan for adding ninth grade in 2016. Superintendent Ann Clark and school board members had spent the fall touting magnet expansion.

But when Clark unveiled her proposals for 2016-17 in October, the Montessori high school was listed only as something to consider for a year still to be determined. The parents are trying to persuade her to change her mind before Tuesday’s school board vote.

On one level, the battle for a ninth-grade Montessori magnet is small potatoes. It would mean hiring two teachers for about 25 students who would stay at Sedgefield for one more year.

But it illustrates the complexity that accompanies any change in student assignment – even those that seem like no-brainers.

And, it comes at a time when the district’s leaders hope that magnets can keep CMS competitive while encouraging diversity at high-poverty neighborhood schools. The Sedgefield story shows that is far from simple.

Montessori guides students to their academic and behavioral potential in a natural, more logical way of thinking, learning and behaving.

Zayna Sheridan, eighth-grader at Sedgefield Montessori, in an essay about the school

Expanding popular magnets seems like the obvious strategy for keeping students in CMS at a time when charter schools are booming and the state is offering “opportunity scholarships” to move students to private schools.

What makes Montessori different

Montessori schools, named for an Italian educator, are best known as a creative, hands-on approach to teaching young children. They certainly are popular in CMS. More than 700 children were on this year’s wait list for four K-6 Montessori schools, including a new one that opened in 2014.

At parents’ request, the district added a Montessori magnet for grades 7-8 in 2010. It is a school-within-a-school at Sedgefield, a neighborhood school off South Boulevard.

The Montessori students – about 90 this year – have their own wing, their own classes and their own lunchroom, where most students bring a lunch and everyone takes turns cleaning up. While the neighborhood students are expected to move through the halls in silent lines, with close supervision, Montessori students are trusted to make their own way.

Soft music plays in classrooms, where chairs and tables are positioned to encourage small clusters or individual work. During a recent math lesson, teacher Mindy Mahar sat on the floor at a low “community table,” talking several seventh- and eighth-graders through a lesson on ratios. Other students chose to do individual work. The students take a camping trip every fall, and one option for math work involved comparing prices for items they might buy: If one store offers three items for $8 and another offers four for $11, which is the best deal?

Many lessons take place in or around Dairy Branch, which flows through the Sedgefield campus into Little Sugar Creek. Students monitor and measure sediment, pollutants and life in the creek.

After lunch, students spend 15 minutes of “solo time” – knitting, doing word puzzles, squishing Play-Doh, sketching in journals or otherwise being quiet and turning off the stressed-out social parts of their brains.

When there’s a dispute, the students get out the Awareness Wheel, a tablecloth with different areas marked out. The person with a beef starts by standing in the center and stating the issue, then steps around the circle to an area labeled, “I think,” “I feel,” “I want” and similar options. Then the person being called into question steps into the circle and responds. Issues range from slacking on chores to romantic rivalries.

“I thought it was silly at first,” said eighth-grader A.J. Jones, “but it actually does work to solve problems between students.”

It’s a way of life that starts with grace and courtesy.

Sedgefield Montessori teacher Mindy Mahar, on the school’s philosophy

Many aspects of the Montessori approach, from cultivating responsibility and teamwork to emphasizing project-based lessons and community service, are considered best practices for all schools.

“This is ideal,” says Sedgefield Principal Erik Turner, “not just for Montessori scholars but for all scholars.”

Students arrive with stronger skills

But the contrast between Montessori and neighborhood students is stark.

Montessori students are racially diverse but majority white. They tend to arrive at Sedgefield with grade-level skills and succeed on state exams.

The vast majority of Sedgefield’s neighborhood students are black or Hispanic, come from low-income homes and struggle academically. The school received an “F” based on 2015 test scores. Turner, who took over school leadership this summer, said part of his mission is proving to all families that the school is safe and has a culture of learning.

The location of the middle school Montessori magnet has deterred some families, parents and teachers said. But the prospects for high school are equally important, they said.

The Montessori eighth-graders have no guaranteed seat in any high school magnet program. But students who attend an International Baccalaureate magnet in middle school are on track to attend a high school IB magnet. Mahar, herself the parent of two elementary-school Montessori students, said the K-6 magnet schools start to lose students in sixth grade, when some parents put their kids into the IB magnet lottery.

Even against the odds, grades 7 and 8 of the Montessori program have grown. But the program’s expansion to grades 9 through 12 seems to be perpetually stalled.

Sedgefield Montessori parent Brittany Stone

A long path to high school

For four years, Montessori parents have lobbied CMS officials for a high school magnet.

Across the country, Montessori high schools are far less common than lower grades. In Charlotte, the private Countryside and Omni Montessori schools offer high school – and charge about $17,000 a year.

Clark Montessori High School, a Cincinnati magnet school offering grades 7-12, opened in the 1990s and is considered the national model for public schools. Closer to home, Columbia, S.C., has public Montessori high schools, Mahar said.

At CMS, the parents and faculty felt like they were constantly starting over because of changes in leadership, from the superintendent’s office to the magnet director. But this year they thought they had prevailed. The magnet office paid Mahar to prepare a plan for adding ninth-graders at Sedgefield in 2016-17.

The school, which has about 720 students this year, could handle that, Turner says. But the Montessori high school would need its own site by the second year, when it would have ninth- and 10th-graders.

That was the sticking point when Mahar’s plan made its way through the CMS hierarchy. Clark says she doesn’t yet have a site and doesn’t want to launch a new school without a long-term plan.

Clark said she is continuing to talk with parents and her staff to see if there’s a way to make things work for 2016. But she made no promises. Decisions about a few Montessori students now are linked to all sorts of other decisions about magnets and school sites in the future, Clark said: “It is such a complicated game of dominoes.”

Parents said the loss of momentum could be devastating. Sedgefield’s magnet is starting to catch on, with 60 seventh-graders in the Montessori program compared with 30 eighth-graders. A corps of active PTO parents stands ready to support the high school and market the option to keep middle school students in the Montessori program.

And with Clark’s contract ending this summer and the prospect of a superintendent search looming, they fear a delay could mean starting over.

Families apply for CMS magnets in January. If the high school does not get the go-ahead Tuesday, Whittle said the parents might push for a December do-over.

If that fails, the Montessori high school will be back in the mix as the school board pursues a long-term plan for its magnet and neighborhood schools.

Parent Brittany Stone said the district’s inability to make a decision threatens to erode the confidence of parents who are gung-ho on CMS.

“Why,” she asked, “are we still waiting?”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

Will they prevail?

The school board meets at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the meeting chamber of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St. The agenda includes a vote on changes to magnet transportation and a handful of programs for 2016. Go to www.cms.k12.nc.us/boe/Pages/SchoolBoardMeetings.aspx for the agenda, a link to watch live online and instructions on signing up to speak.

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