New York City Montessori Charter School
New York's first public Montessori school
Loose structure and independence may not appeal to some families
New York City's first public Montessori school opened in 2011 with kindergarten and first grade and will grow to become a K-5 school with about 300 students. Hallmarks of Montessori include multi-age groupings, learning at your own pace and the use of hands-on materials.
The Montessori materials are specially designed to enable students to achieve a concrete grasp of abstract concepts. Lessons in math, for example, begin with things children can hold and touch like beads to learn how to count. Each lesson is followed by an activity that the child does by himself for practice. Over time, these activities require more and more mental math until the child can do problems in her head.
Yet children here do see the forest for the trees: young children are exposed to big-picture ideas like the history of writing and numbers, and the creation of the earth, via timelines, dramatic stories, pictures and words. Principal Gina Sardi describes her school as encouraging independence, catering to a variety of learning styles, teaching concepts in a variety of ways and giving children the time they need to learn.
Children take on an unusual amount of responsibility. They may make choices not only about where and with whom they will work, but also the order in which they will do their subjects. Each classroom is carefully arranged to help children internalize order (see photos). First, 2nd and 3rd graders (and 4th and 5th) are mixed in one classroom, and this allows children to learn from one another.
Instead of lecturing, two teachers work with small groups, pairs or singles, while the other children work on tasks according to a list of choices called a work plan. The adults are more like guides or coaches. Indeed, when we entered a classroom it was sometimes hard to see the teacher, who was often on the rug with students. Families looking for strict discipline, authoritarian teachers and uniforms will be disappointed.
The school has experienced some growing pains. Sardi, a longtime director of education at The Caedmon School, a private school on the Upper East Side, is working with staff to boost attendance and academic skills, and teachers grapple with how to best handle aggressive behavior like pushing and fighting. Daily gym classes allow children to let off steam and there is art twice a week. Children are tested and pulled out for extra help if they need it. However, on our visit, classes looked calm and teachers used kind, firm voices.
Public Montessori schools have unique challenges and this one is no exception. Typically children begin Montessori at age three but this school begins with kindergarten so teachers need to work harder to help the children learn the self-control and independence that teachers expect. Sardi hopes to have a pre-kindergarten in the future to address this need. Also, although all teachers are fully certified to teach elementary school, they do not yet all have the extra seven or more weeks of Montessori training, a time during which teachers learn about the philosophy and how to use the Montessori materials.
The schools partner is the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation (SoBRO), which provides services to families, including after-school programs and workshops on parenting, discipline, homework, or health and wellness. Efforts to bring families together include the Family Association, Family Fun Day and a Book Fair. The building is shared with the Heketi Community Charter School.
Special education: There is a slightly higher than average number of children with special needs compared to other schools in the district. Although Montessori is an individualized approach, often touted for its ability to serve children with special needs, this may not be the best choice for the child who craves structure.
Admissions: According to the schools charter application (PDF), the school gives preference to siblings and to in-district students in an attempt to maintain a balance of the number of children with IEPs and English language learners in each class. Applications are due April 1. Hundreds of families are on the waiting list. (March 2013, Lydie Raschka)
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Bronx NY 10454