Power of the Plan: Two years in, Stonebrook Montessori receives community embrace, learns lessons
Story by Justin Glanville Photos by Julia Van Wagenen
Two years ago, the first story in the Power of the Plan series featured Stonebrook Montessori, a public charter school that had recently opened under principal Jacqui Miller. Opening new, innovative schools is a key component of Cleveland’s Plan for Transforming Schools, the public-private partnership to ensure every child in Cleveland receives a high-quality education. In this installment, we revisit Stonebrook Montessori to see how the school has evolved in its first two years.
Stonebrook Montessori’s marketing plan for the 2017-18 school year is unorthodox yet devastatingly simple: Give every student a T-shirt.
“That’ll be about all we need to do,” says Erica Adams, community engagement and admissions coordinator, with a laugh. “Whenever we ask people how they hear about us, we hear, ‘Oh, my cousin goes here,’ or ‘I know a friend.’ It’s all word of mouth.”
The school, now in its third year of operation, has an enrollment of 180 students — nearly double its starting number.
Some of that growth is by design: Stonebrook expands annually to include another year of students. But Adams believes booming enrollment is also a sign that Cleveland families are hearing good things about the school and that community trust is building. There is currently a wait list for each age level, with demand especially strong at the primary level (ages 3-6; see sidebar).
“I think there’s been a lot of learning and understanding on all sides,” Adams says. “Families are understanding the Montessori philosophy better, students are becoming more settled, and we’re learning how to meet the needs of this particular community.”
New school, proven model
When Stonebrook opened for the 2015-16 school year, it embodied several of the ideals of Cleveland’s Plan for Transforming Schools — the public-private effort to ensure every child in Cleveland receives a quality education.
It was a new charter school, but operating under a proven educational model — an important consideration in a city where new schools have opened with big promises but failed to deliver.
Stonebrook is also sponsored by the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, meaning it shares a portion of the district’s operating funds and collaborates with the district to share enrollment data and best practices.
Still, despite families’ apparent embrace of the school, Stonebrook has also experienced challenges.
Last year, only 40 percent of students passed the test the school uses for the state-mandated Third Grade Reading Guarantee. Adams believes that partly reflects a clash between standardized tests and the Montessori philosophy, which emphasizes individual learning and exploration. But she says the school must also reassess its methods.
“We’re going to go back and look at what we’re giving kids at the primary level before they reach third grade,” she says. “At the other end, we’ll ask if we’re preparing students enough for the tests.”
Many Stonebrook students also appear to prefer learning in small peer groups rather than through individual teacher-to-student interactions, which are more traditional in Montessori classrooms. That may reflect students’ cultural backgrounds in a neighborhood where many households are multigenerational or include extended family members.
But Jacqui Miller, Stonebrook’s principal, says understanding the reason is less important than accommodating it.
“We’re still observing a lot and being cautious not to assign causality to anything,” Miller says. “We want to be responsive to real needs and meet the children where they are, which is what Montessori is all about.”
Hope v. optimism
A tour of the school, which has recently expanded to include the building’s second floor, bears out her words.
One primary classroom buzzes with an assortment of group of individual activities. A boy in a blue smock fills a bowl with water, preparing to learn to wash his hands. A girl works with an assistant teacher to identify pictures of vegetables from a deck of flashcards: broccoli, cucumber, carrot.
The air of freedom is also tinged with discipline. One boy drops his crayon and complains he can’t reach it.
“You have to get up out of your chair, then,” teacher Jen Cerny tells him.
The boy stands.
“There, now you can get it,” she says.
Adams believes Stonebrook’s mix of latitude and structure, and its responsiveness to individual students’ needs, may be the main reason families are embracing the school.
“When we were new on the block, we saw there wasn’t a lot of trust in institutions or schools because people felt they’d been let down in the past,” Adams says.
Now, she and Miller routinely receive words of gratitude and thankful greeting cards from even the most skeptical parents.
Gestures such as those make Miller feel the school is on the right track.
“We’re doing the work now, seeing the results,” she says. “We’re establishing something and paying attention to the feedback. We’re saying, ‘Please give us help us do better. We’ll hear that and follow through.’”
“Two years ago, I was hopeful,” she says. “Today, that hope is more optimism.”
Many people know that Montessori schools are “different” from traditional schools, but the specifics may be unclear. Here are some of the distinctions most visible from a casual visit to Stonebrook Montessori:
Classrooms are organized into age groups rather than grades. Montessori schools combine students into three-year age groups, in part so that younger children can learn from older peers. The most common groupings combine students ages 0-3, 3-6, 6-12, 12-15, and 15-18. Because Stonebrook is still adding years, it currently has two types of classroom: Primary (ages 3-6), Elementary (ages 6-9), and Upper Elementary (currently ages 9-10, will grow to ages 9-12).
Instruction is oriented to individuals or small groups. Teachers typically interact with one student or several students at a time, rather than addressing a full class simultaneously. The idea is to give students individualized attention, foster creativity, and accommodate various learning styles.
Students move about freely. Rather than sitting in assigned chairs, students move around the classroom, interacting with peers and teachers and choosing from a range of learning tools set up around the room. For example, in an elementary classroom (ages 6-9), one student may have an individual conference with a teacher to review homework while a small group knits geometric patterns using multicolored yarn.