Twenty-four Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools freshmen began their high school careers last fall without sports teams, school colors, a band or a mascot.
Instead, they chose to forge a new path in the district as the first ninth-grade Montessori class at Sedgefield Middle. It is a path they will continue in the fall with the opening of John Taylor Williams Secondary Montessori School, the first public Montessori high school in North Carolina.
"Some people ask, 'Don't you want a normal school?' but I love it here," said freshman Jamilah Pettis. "I've always known I wanted to be in Montessori."
Jamilah was in pre-kindergarten when she started the Montessori program. It takes a different approach from traditional schools to teaching basic skills. Subject areas are integrated and focus on independent learning and a supportive community. Students have freedom within limits and teachers provide guidance.
"The goal is to not need the teacher," said Sedgefield Montessori High teacher Mindy Mahar. "Montessori is simply using best practices, such as character building, that are naturally infused in everything we do. We're teaching them to be upstanders, not bystanders."
The 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 sixth grade – Chantilly, Highland Mill, Park Road and Trillium Springs. The seventh- and eighth-grade Montessori program was added at Sedgefield in 2010 and Montessori families continued to advocate for a high school option.
Williams Secondary Montessori, which will be located in the former J.T. Williams Middle at 2400 Carmine St., provides that option. The school will house Montessori grades seven through nine, along with this year's rising sophomore class. One grade will be added per year through grade 12.
"I'm excited just to see how far we expand and to be the first to graduate in the Class of 2020," freshman Dorian Overbeck said.
Dorian said his parents wanted him in Montessori because of the freedom it offered to be interactive and have more hands-on experiences. He said his educational experience far outweighs having traditional high school experiences and that Montessori has given him more responsibility to develop a range of skills.
High school Montessori students are offered the same state core courses as any other high school but have a range of elective offerings that align with the Montessori philosophy, Mahar said. The electives include Intro to Neurobiology, a course about adolescent brain development where students learn about how they are wired, and Restorative Practices, where students explore topics from human impact on the environment to social justice advocacy and research.
Students also have fall and spring intercessions, two-week intensive studies that cultivate specific skill sets and allow students to explore something relevant to them. The recent spring intercession, "Perspectives," was art-based and focused on how students view the world. The work included an art project, art journal and sketchbook and culminated in an art show for their parents.
"I am really impressed with the thoughtfulness and intention in their art," said parent Dara Whittle, who attended the art show. "Montessori is about being mindful in all you do and I even get support on being the kind of parent I want to be."
As Janice Pettis, Jamilah's mother, viewed the art show offerings, she said the Montessori program has been "so much more than we thought it would be."
"They are very independent in how they look at their work," Pettis said of the students. "They have the ability to work at a pace that is comfortable for them and to have a variety of experiences. It's literally a culture, a community working together."
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