Passionate principal oversees the ‘low hum’ of student creativity
Jacqui Miller is leading a tour of Stonebrook Montessori School, the new public charter school where she’s principal, when she stops in the middle of a hallway.
“Ooh, there’s a beautiful thing happening on the floor right there,” she says. “Come on.”
She steps into a classroom, followed by a small group of visitors. Three girls, ranging in age from three to five, sit together on a blue rug. The girls work together, talking quietly, to match shape cards – squares, triangles, circles.
“That’s the goal,” Miller whispers, watching them. “You want to see small groups breaking off like that, working on something they find engaging.”
In another corner, the classroom’s teacher, Jen Cerny, sits on the floor with a larger group of kids, holding up flash cards of different animals.
“Police car!” one boy shouts at a picture of a sturgeon fish.
“That’s not a police car, silly!” Cerny says. “That’s not even a car!”
Mass hilarity ensues – kids falling into each other, laughing.
That’s still only about half of what’s going on. On a sunny deck just outside, teacher’s assistant Ben Stein shows kids how to compost banana peels and apple cores. And one group of kids has chosen to go a different direction entirely, staging their own private dance party.
This is only the fourth week of classes at Stonebrook. But in this classroom, at least, the multitasking is a sign that things are exactly on track.
“We like to hear what we call a ‘low hum,’” Miller says. “It’s a sign that there’s activity, life, creativity.”
Not chaos, though. Miller is quick to point out that while the popular perception is that Montessori kids can do whatever they want, that’s a myth. Teachers follow a set curriculum, but never at the cost of discouraging kids’ creativity.
Down the hall, another classroom of first- and second-graders is quieter. Half of the class is in another part of the building, taking a diagnostic reading test, and the kids who remain are mostly copying passages from picture books.
The atmosphere is almost too quiet, in Miller’s estimation, though she’s not going to try to correct it.
That’s another part of the Montessori philosophy, she says: Not to control the mood of a classroom, but to let it evolve and change on its own. It’s an approach mirrored by the simple pendant she wears around her neck, engraved with the word “Peace.”
She leads the tour group down a freshly painted hallway where a young boy named Mar’quel is scrubbing away scratch marks with a wet sponge. The marks appeared mysteriously one day, Miller says — likely the result of kids’ fingernails. Mar’quel, who may or may not have been one of the perpetrators, volunteered to clean it up.
“Mar’quel? Look at me,” Miller says.
He turns and looks her straight in the eye.
“Thank you. Do you hear me? Thank you.”
He smiles and returns to scrubbing.
The promise of new schools
Enabling and encouraging schools such as Stonebrook to open is part of the overall strategy of Cleveland Plan’s for Transforming Schools, a public-private effort to ensure every student in Cleveland gets a quality education.
A report released earlier this year by the Cleveland Transformation Alliance, the group overseeing progress on the Cleveland Plan, found that while significant progress has been made toward that goal, improvement needs to happen faster.
Starting new schools is one of the Cleveland Plan’s four main pillars. The thought is that a wider variety of schools, following a range of proven educational approaches, will enable families to choose schools that fit their kids’ learning styles.
“Stonebrook is an example of what we’re looking for,” says Piet van Lier, the Alliance’s director of school quality, policy and communications. “It uses an established educational model run by people who know how to start a school in one of the city neighborhoods that needs it most.”
That neighborhood is Glenville, which was identified last year as the Cleveland neighborhood most in need of high-quality schools.
Stonebrook occupies a 1930-vintage brick building on East Boulevard that once housed a nursing home for women. It’s nestled between the boulevard’s grand mansions and across the street from the stone fountain and fluted columns of the Italian Cultural Garden in Rockefeller Park.
The school is sponsored by the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, meaning it shares a portion of the operating levy approved by voters in 2012. The remainder of its funding is being raised by the local nonprofit Montessori Development Partnerships. A $6.23 million capital campaign is more than two-thirds complete.
There are 92 students currently enrolled, ranging from pre-K to second grade. Most come from Glenville, though a few live in other city neighborhoods or inner-ring suburbs. The long-term plan is to expand through ninth grade.
A learning curve for all
All is not perfect or easy at Stonebrook, of course. Its first days have been a learning experience for everyone – teachers and administrators included. The space, while newly renovated and light-filled, is still unfamiliar, and the students are still getting used to the Montessori method.
Two students who aren’t acclimating well to self-directed study, for example, have been escorted from classrooms to do “practical work” – manual labor meant to focus their energy and attention. One boy who’d been knocking over shelves earlier in his classroom spends the morning cleaning windows outside with a teacher’s assistant supervising.
And although Miller is clearly more than competent, it’s her first year as a principal – an adjustment in itself. Prior to coming to Cleveland in 2013 to set up Stonebrook, she worked for 20 years as a Montessori teacher at private schools in suburban Atlanta.
She says she’s had to learn fast about charter law in Ohio and learn to be an effective administrator – balancing her own vision for the school with support from others.
“It’s going to be a learning curve for her,” says Debra Hershey Guren, board president of Montessori Development Partnerships.
“But from the moment I met her, I knew she was the right person. She takes the time to be with every person and give them what they need. That’s what makes a great leader.”
At the end of her 12-hour-plus days, Miller goes back to her home in Cleveland’s Lee-Miles neighborhood “exhausted,” with enough energy to feed her cats and eat dinner.
Sometimes, she manages to take a walk, too.
“I’m an Atlanta girl,” she says, “so I want to enjoy the warmth while it’s still here.”
What she feels most, though, are gratitude and a pervasive sense of responsibility.
“I’m not creating Stonebrook myself in any way, shape or form, but to be involved in starting a public, urban Montessori school has been a goal of mine for a long time,” she says.
“And then the responsibility to serve, to do right by kids and families in this community – that’s what I’m learning, and I’m grateful to be able to do it.”
Story by Justin Glanville
Photos by Julie Van Wagenen