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Montessori plans to launch middle school

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- There's a new middle school coming to the Kanawha Valley.

It won't look like the rest of them in Charleston, though. This one will look a lot like the program already in place for elementary children at Mountaineer Montessori School in Kanawha City.

That school, founded in 1976, uses the Montessori education method, an approach that emphasizes experiential learning, independence and childhood development. In essence, children are given a lesson but largely left to their own devices to learn in the way that suits them, with subtle guidance and assessments made by teachers largely in the form of observation, not tests.

The Montessori method applies to children of all ages, through graduation from high school, but it's most common for small children and the elementary school years. Many schools don't have programs for older children -- after they reach a certain grade level they're sent off to a traditional school.

Right now, Mountaineer Montessori has programs in place for students up to grade six. But its administrators are responding to requests from parents who want to leave their children in Montessori longer -- the school plans to launch a middle school program for grades seven and eight, and potentially nine in later years, in the fall.

"It's ambitious," Dana Gilliland, the head of school, said of the plan to build that program by fall. "We have to work quickly here."

"But doable," Laurie Ewert-Krocker chimed in.

Ewert-Krocker is the founding head teacher of the Hershey Farm School in Ohio, one of the premier schools for adolescent Montessori programs in the country. She's also a consultant for Montessori schools around the country who are looking to develop their own middle school program.

She was in Charleston this week to advise Mountaineer Montessori on the transition. She gave a talk for parents and faculty at the school, and went with administrators to visit a potential site for the school.

"It's just a huge undertaking with so many factors to consider -- a site and financing and curriculum and all this -- and Laurie has a lot of experience in this," Gilliland said.

One of the largest and most important hurdles is a location for the school, both because of practical concerns, and because location plays into the middle school Montessori curriculum in a big way.

"It's place-based in that the projects that integrate their studies are based on their locale, their neighborhood, their community, their property, their building, their site. You can make meaningful work for adolescents who need their work to be meaningful and relevant this way," Ewert-Krocker said.

"And then there's also the idea in Montessori that you need to provide some of your own needs, so there's a very strong element of urban gardening and cooking and studying nutrition and the chemistry behind nutrition, producing things that you can sell, being part of the economic system and running businesses and all about that."

The founder of Montessori education, Maria Montessori, believed that the ideal place for adolescents to do all this work was a farm -- it gives students ample opportunities for the kinds of hands-on activities that Montessori prescribed.

And Ewert-Krocker's experiences at her own middle school on a farm have reinforced that, though she also believes the same principals can be applied in an urban setting.

That's why Mountaineer Montessori is considering two plans for its middle school program: in one, students spend all of their time on a historic farm in Elkview (the farm in question belongs to the family of a Mountaineer Montessori child).

In the other scenario, they would spend the bulk of their time in the neighborhood of the school's current location, and only go to the farm from time to time - maybe weekly and for some extended trips, or perhaps less often.

Either way, students would come to the school in Kanawha City each morning, and then together take a bus to the farm.

"The farm works really nicely," Ewert-Krocker said. "But you can take those same principals and you can put them anywhere. So even in an urban setting you have really all the pieces of that environment, all the people that you need to care for, and economic activity."

Some of this -- the idea that adolescent students need hands-on experiences to do meaningful learning -- is being examined in the education community at large. Nationally and on a state level, education officials are looking at changing the system's approach to middle school education and, maybe, making it look a little more like Montessori.

Gayle Manchin, president of the state Board of Education, and a handful of other education officials visited the school last month to get a feel for the Montessori method, and consider ways it could be incorporated in a traditional classroom.

"And the middle school could be a really good beacon," Gilliland said. "So that's a really big reason for us doing this, is to provide a model for the rest of the state, because we're in a position where we can."

She'd like to see Mountaineer Montessori develop a program that could serve as a guide for traditional schools and educators who want to incorporate some of Montessori techniques in their own classrooms. The school could be open, she said, to observers from the larger education world, as a learning tool.

"I'd like to get a program that's really a model, that's really strong and works really well so that we can inspire other schools at least to take elements of it," she said.

Contact writer Shay Maunz at shay.maunz@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-4886.


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