‘This is the dream’

Maggie Barker surveyed the cafeteria at John Taylor Williams Secondary Montessori with delight and a tinge of awe.

"This is the dream," said Barker, a retired Montessori teacher. "I was in the very first class at Amay James Montessori. It was at a time when no one knew how to say Montessori or even knew what it was. This is about educational change and moving forward – it's a dream come true."

Barker's sentiments were echoed repeatedly at the Oct. 10 dedication of the new high school, the first public Montessori high school in North Carolina. The school opened this fall after Montessori families' long advocacy for a high school Montessori option. John Taylor Williams has 167 students in grades seven through 10 and will add one grade per year through grade 12.

"These 10th-graders in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are leading the way. … You are making history," said Dr. Ruby Jones, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education member for District 3. "I am proud of this school and I am proud of this district for making it happen."

Dr. Clayton Wilcox, CMS superintendent, also spoke at the dedication. Other Board members in attendance were Chairperson Mary McCray, Vice Chairperson Elyse Dashew, Thelma Byers-Bailey and Tom Tate.

The Montessori program was created by Dr. Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator. She opened the first Montessori school in 1907. The approach focuses on how a child naturally learns and develops the whole child – physically, socially, emotionally and cognitively. Components of the program include multi-age groups to foster peer learning, uninterrupted blocks of work time and guided choice of work activity.

Most Montessori students begin the program at an early age. CMS has four Montessori schools for pre-kindergarten through grade six – Chantilly, Highland Mill, Park Road and Trillium Springs. A seventh- and eighth-grade Montessori program was added at Sedgefield Middle in 2010.

Tenth-grader Zayna Sheridan said she has loved every minute of her Montessori education. She said that she and her classmates constantly show spirit but not like other high schools.

"We show spirit to others, to nature, compassion, commitment and community," Zayna said. "That is how we show real spirit."

Principal Sophia Hazlehurst quoted Dr. Montessori, noting that her program was radical in her time.

"'To consider the school as a place where instruction is given is one point of view, but to consider the school as a preparation for life is another. In the latter case, the school must satisfy all the needs of life,"' Hazlehurst said. "Indeed, that is what we are about – discovering the potential that lies within every child."

The principal spoke of the school's Trailblazer mascot.

"We are trailblazers, as were Dr. Montessori and Dr. John Taylor Williams, one of the first three African-American doctors licensed in North Carolina," she said. "He was an educator, businessman and diplomat. This campus, opened in 1962, was named for him. We will proudly carry on his legacy."

Hazlehurst also displayed a saucer magnolia tree, one of four that will grace the school's campus. She said the trees were a gift from the four Montessori feeder schools.

"I know we stand on your shoulders and we appreciate the foundation you give our students," Hazlehurst said.