From a hill overlooking the West Side, connecting with the community isn’t hard for students at the Charleston Montessori School, but it isn’t as easy as it could be.
This summer the school is moving to Washington Street West, the main drag in this part of town. The move, school leaders said, is to accommodate a growing student population and to help the school connect with its neighborhood.
“A new home for the school which would give us space to grow has always been in our strategic plan,” Susanne Coffield, the school’s co-director said. “With moving here, we’re really accomplishing that.”
Coffield said the school’s student population has increased from about 17 students four years ago to more than 50 now.
The new school will take up both floors of a building connected to the Bream Memorial Presbyterian Church. The new location will have a gymnasium and more classroom space. In the future, kids might be able to use the kitchen, Payne said.
Parents and school staff said the move is a win for the kids. Community leaders lauded the move as a win for the West Side.
“Having a school here on Washington in the middle of the community, that’s an element we’re missing,” said Zachery Miller, the owner of Kanawha Individual Development Solutions and next year’s lower level leader at the school.
“It promotes a progressive community instead of a deteriorating community, which I think is how people look at the West Side now,” he said.
“Walkable” and “urban” are two words boosters use to describe the neighborhood. “Revitalized” is a newer one, which seems to characterize the neighborhood more and more, said Stephanie Johnson, the director of West Side Main Street.
“We’ve made significant strides as a community and organization,” Johnson said. “Revitalization is not going to come with solely economic development. It’s going to take a lot of people working together.”
That’s precisely the aim of the Charleston Montessori School. A primary goal of the school is to teach students the value of community involvement.
The school is also a nonprofit 501(c)(3), and relies on donations and tuition.
Visibility is important, said Paige Payne, the school’s co-director.
“Our corporate partners down here — the possibilities for those are great and we look forward to forming more partners,” Payne said.
The school’s move doesn’t come cheap. The torn up carpet and busted up walls that characterize the new building will need to be replaced by the start of the school year.
Much of the cost has been covered by local business, Payne said. Labor, too, has been offered for free from kids and parents.
“When we’re working, they’re working,” Payne said of the students.
A group of about six students followed Payne and Coffield around the new building Wednesday morning before lunch. Payne said moving has given the students another hands-on experience, something key to a Montessori education.
The Charleston Montessori School was founded in 2010 with the goal of offering an alternative to what founders believed was a trend of rigid standardized testing in public schools. Students are separated by skill level — not age — and are given individualized projects rather than worksheets.
Older students help younger ones master concepts. The older students reinforce their own knowledge in the process, helping them learn real world social skills, Payne said.
Montessori education is nothing new. Maria Montessori in Rome popularized the method more than a century ago. Since then, the methods lost popularity for a time just to gain it back more recently, according to the American Montessori Society.
The Charleston Montessori School is one of two Montessori schools in the area. Mountaineer Montessori has been around since 1976, operating off of MacCorkle Avenue.
Having the students’ families living on the West Side near the school would only add to the sense of community school leaders are trying to cultivate, they said.
“About a third of our families live on the West Side,” Payne said. “We’d like to see that grow.”
Local leaders said the overarching theme of the school’s move seems to be the impact to the neighborhood.
More contact with local artists will be benefit the kids. More contact with business will be benefit the school. The school’s presence will make the neighborhood more visible to everyone, Miller said.
“This is an evolution you can watch from your doorstep,” Miller said. “People are taking notice, seeing the area as an attractive place to be.”
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