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Montessori model on tap for Frayser school

Students at Evergreen Montessori School work on a lesson together.
Students at Evergreen Montessori School work on a lesson together.
Daarel Burnette II

Here’s how Bob Nardo envisions fixing one of Tennessee’s worst-performing schools.

Children move about a carefully constructed classroom working with hands-on math and literacy materials for two to three hours at a time. They are sometimes alone, sometimes with a handful of their peers. Teachers observe and periodically give small group or individual lessons. Discipline is built around “grace and courtesy,” where children are encouraged to channel their energy into “purposeful movement.”

Nardo’s Libertas School of Memphis will become the first Montessori charter school in Tennessee, if the Achievement School District gives it the go-ahead to take over either Brookmeade or Hawkins Mill elementary schools in Frayser next year. Nardo hopes that the Montessori model, wildly popular in white affluent communities, can take a majority-black school in one of the poorest sections of Memphis to the top performing quartile in the state within five years.

“Let’s take the quality of an elite private school education and make it available as a free public school,”said Nardo, a former ASD adminstrator. “We’ve treated education like it’s mass production and it just isn’t. Montessori is transformative, it’s personalized, it’s rich and it’s rigorous.”

The Libertas teaching style, culture, student grouping, and curriculum diverge markedly from the highly structured turnaround efforts the local, state, and federal governments have poured millions of dollars into in recent years. In many ways, it also differs from most Montessori schools, by incorporating some more traditionally structured elements. These disparate elements of the Libertas model have never all been combined in one school before.

The proposal, touted during a series of community meetings in recent weeks, has caused ripples of anger and concern throughout Frayser.

Last week, parents at Brookmeade and Hawkins Mill decried the takeover and asked for alternative solutions at the Shelby County Schools board meeting. Brookmeade parents presented the school board with a petition signed by 168 parents who vowed to pull their students from the school if Libertas took over.

The parents said the Libertas model was too “experimental” and inappropriate for low-income communities, where parents are either absent or work multiple jobs and long hours. They vowed to pull their children from the schools if Libertas takes over.

“There’s absolutely no data to back up that this will work,” said Ibinka Neilly, a mother at Brookmeade who heads up the school’s Parent Teacher Organization.

Neilly sent her son to a Montessori school a few years ago only to pull him out after eight weeks. “Our kids needs structure. The parents in Frayser aren’t strong-minded and strong-willed enough to stay on top of their child’s education” as a Montessori school requires, she said.

The Montessori model was developed more than a century ago by Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator, to teach children in the slums of Rome.

Over the years, its unique,”natural” style of learning has won it a devoted following.

The model allows students to chose subjects that interest them most and focus on them for as long as they remain engaged, with gentle guidance from teachers. In orthodox Montessori models, classroom lectures, tests and grades are rare to nonexistent. Students instead use a series of self-correcting hands-on puzzles, or materials that are intricately connected.

Montessori organizes students in age groups spanning up to three years. Students often teach each other how to solve problems. Children naturally come to realize their own mistakes and move onto more challenging coursework when they feel ready.

“The children don’t need the external control because they aren’t being asked to do something that’s against their nature,” said Angeline Lillard, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia who has extensively studied Montessori programs in low-income communities.

“In traditional classrooms, we make them sit in chairs, listen to us talk and we bore them to death. Then we give them grades and they’re working for the grades instead of working for the learning. It’s backwards.”

In recent years, parents across the country have petitioned urban public school districts to create their own Montessori programs. Today, more than 480 public Montessori programs exist across the country, with more than 280 of them created since 2000. Tennessee has four magnet Montessori schools, two in Nashville, one in Jackson and another in Memphis, Double Tree Montessori School.

The growth, experts say, is a direct response to the results-driven and discipline-heavy culture known as “no excuses” that’s evolved since the passing of No Child Left Behind. In those schools, teachers give frequent tests and regularly remind students of the ultimate goal: college completion. Principals give demerits to students who talk out of turn during class, break dress codes or fail to walk on the taped lines that line the hallways. The less distraction, educators say, the faster test scores will rise.

“For ‘no excuses’, the ultimate goal is not intellectual fervor, it’s just to score better,” said Keith Whitescarver, the director of the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector. “Montessori is the opposite approach of the no excuses school. It’s a very individualized approach where environment is key.”

Several studies show that Montessori programs can improve low-income students’ test scores because they provide stability, a structured environment, individualized lesson plans, and ultimately shift the ownership of education onto the child.

But experts warn that in order to be effective, Montessori public schools must follow strict Montessori models, resisting attempts to conform to a more traditional classroom model to get more immediate test results. They also say public Montessori programs can be expensive, and struggle to retain teachers. Students who move to multiple schools in one year can especially be hurt by a Montessori model.

Nardo spends the majority of his 119-page charter application explaining how he will overcome those challenges. He promises heavy intervention when students stray off track.

“We are trying to focus on the original principals of Maria Montessori, not people who are working in her name generations later,” Nardo said. “We’re doing everything they suggest and adding more on top of it.”

Brookmeade Elementary test scores
Brookmeade Elementary test scores

Nardo, who was raised by a bus driver father and bookkeeper mother in New York City, began his career as a band teacher for a KIPP charter school in Newark. After serving several stints as a charter school administrator, he was brought to Memphis in 2012 to serve as the ASD’s first chief operating officer. He left a little more than a year later to create his own charter school.

A self-described homesteader, Nardo has bought a couple acres of land in Frayser, where he raises sheep, chicken and a herd of goats. His wife is expecting her fourth child in February.

“We’re committed to expanding high quality choices for parents and providing a range of offerings that meet the diverse needs of our students,” said Margo Roen, the ASD’s deputy chief portfolio officer. The ASD has taken over a large portion of Frayser’s schools, almost of all of which fall on the state’s “priority list.

“With this in mind, as we grow, we’re being intentional about expanding our menu of school options—including Montessori’s proven, student-focused approach—and through this menu, giving each unique student access to a diverse range of high quality public offerings,” Roen said.

At either Brookmeade or Hawkins Mill, Nardo plans to open two grades at a time starting with four-year-olds next year. Libertas will feature a pre-K program, which many expersts say is necessary to make Montessori programs work.

While Nardo’s school will use several mainstream Montessori practices, it will differ in several key ways.

While most Montessori models move away from conventional curriculum that guide students when to move onto new subjects, teachers at Libertas will work with students to develop individual work plans based on “Core Knowledge,” a curriculum used in traditional classrooms and in some Montessori schools across the country.

Hawkins Mill test scores
Hawkins Mill test scores

“Our emphasis on curriculum is not common but I speculate that’s because private Montessori schools serve middle class, wealthy students who have access to rich text and cultural experiences,” Nardo said. “Poor children don’t have the privilege of that. Schools working with disadvantaged students need to be more intentional.”

Recognizing that public Montessori teachers are hard to recruit and retain, especially in a turnaround model, Nardo said he will pair urban teachers with traditionally-trained Montessori teachers. The school will sponsor the urban teachers’ Montessori training.

Unlike the majority of public Montessori programs, Libertas will be a neighborhood school, meaning its students will be assigned to the school and parents will have to opt out if they don’t like the unique model.

Frayser is a majority-black community of single-family bungalos in North Memphis. It has some of the highest teenage pregnancy and unemployment rates in the state.

Test scores at the two schools, located less than two miles from each other, have stagnated in recent years. At Hawkins Mill, just 18 percent of students met state math standards last year. Just 12 percent of students at Brookmeade did.

Despite that record of sub-par performance, parents at both schools have organized PTOs in recent years and fathers regularly volunteer at the school, according to interviews with parents at the school. Teachers say they have instituted new interventions and after-school programs.

“There’s a very high opt-out rate from our neighborhood schools but there are very few high-performing choices,” said Nardo. “I feel like if you want to get a great education, you shouldn’t have to leave Frayser.

The ASD is expected to make its decision Dec. 12.

For more information on the takeover process, visit our interactive page here.

Contact Daarel Burnette II at or 901-260-3705.

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel, @chalkbeattn.

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