Most of us attended high school in our own neighborhoods or a short school bus ride from home. Our parents didn’t think to question otherwise. Today, however, parents have more choices: public, private, parochial, magnet, charter, technical and more.
Included on the list is Montessori, an educational approach developed in the late 19th century by Maria Montessori, Ph.D., an Italian educator and physician whose teaching methods emphasized independence along with respect for a child’s natural psychological development from birth to age 18.
This fall, Chad Gesdson, principal of Camelback High School in Phoenix, and a staff of two teachers will be opening Camelback Montessori College Preparatory, the Valley’s first Montessori high school. “Montessori is one of the most exciting things going on [in secondary education],” says Gesdson, who is known as “Dr. G.” on campus.
He didn’t have to look far for help bringing the Montessori approach to Camelback High. Villa Montessori School, established in 1964 as the first Montessori school in Phoenix, sits right across the street. Gesdson and Margo O’Neill, head of school at Villa since 2000 (after 20 years as a Montessori teacher), brainstormed ways to integrate components of Villa’s programs into a unique and innovative curriculum for Camelback High. He could not have found a more valuable and creative resource.
“We are in a climate of parent choice,” says O’Neill, “and it’s my perception that the national charter school movement has opened a window for more innovation at the high school level. Montessori is a natural fit.” Brain research supports the Montessori philosophy at all levels of development, she says. “When students are intrinsically motivated to learn, they grow to love learning. When they study what interests them—within a set curriculum—they naturally achieve.”
Traditional school is viewed one year at a time with disciplines taught as separate entities. Montessori programs mix ages and disciplines. For example, instead of teaching them as separate, unrelated subjects, Montessori combines English with social studies, global literature with world cultures and geography. Grouping subjects allows for a more global orientation for the students, resulting in enhanced cultural awareness.
Once the program was presented to and approved by the Phoenix Union High School District (PUHSD) Governing Board, Gesdson set his sights on finding teachers and students to make up this “school-within-a-school” concept. After a rigorous process combining state-mandated high school teacher qualifications with those of an ideal Montessori educator, he chose two teachers from 30 applicants. Students interested in the program also went through a detailed application process, including small group interviews, writing essays on why they qualify for the program and submitting letters of recommendation.
An important goal was choosing the right mix of kids—25 to begin this fall, and 25 added each year, eventually topping out at 100—from all types of middle schools, with varied ability levels and interests, but representative of the Camelback High community, where, as Gesdson stresses, a “phenomenal school culture” prevails. These Montessori freshmen will integrate into the rest of the school by sharing in the same electives, lunch hours and extracurricular/sports/club activities outside of the Montessori curriculum. CMCP students will have to meet the same Arizona standardized testing requirements as their Camelback High peers.
“The students will benefit from a small-school Montessori environment inside the large-school experience, with access to large-school resources,” says Gesdson.
The first two teachers chosen for the program (several more will be hired in the next four years as students are added) can barely contain their enthusiasm for the adventure ahead. Michael Sauer, who comes from the Creighton School District in Phoenix, will concentrate on English and social studies instruction. Having worked with very young children in his career, he remembers practicing certain Montessori principles as he observed “a strong connection to a higher level of learning” in this age group.
When the chance to work with the first Montessori high school class arose, he jumped at it, seeing it as a good fit with his experience and his style of teaching. He looks forward to seeing the students “express themselves in small groups” as they move toward building a strong, family-like community. A large and affable man, he plans to bring his academic acumen to CMCP, along with his ping-pong skills.
Working alongside Sauer is Danchi Nguyen, currently a teacher at Camelback High. Diminutive and energetic, Nguyen, who has overseen honors chemistry at the school, will cover math and science. Nguyen remembers sitting in college classes and feeling awed by peers who “dared” to engage their professors with challenging questions. It was at these moments that she realized she had gotten “a very good education, but not a very innovative one.” She is drawn to the potential for creativity and new ideas at CMCP and adds, “Any teacher loves smaller groups!”
Both Sauer and Nguyen spent much of the summer training at Clark Montessori in Cincinnati, Ohio, a national leader and innovator of middle and high school Montessori programs. It will take two years before they are fully certified in high school Montessori instruction.
Kent B. Scribner, Ph.D., superintendent of PUHSD, stresses that the district offers many outstanding education program options and that “the Montessori program at Camelback High School is just one more example of the innovative approach that we’ve embraced at Phoenix Union. We are committed to providing a high-quality, personalized education for all of our 26,000 students.”
When 15-year-old Katie Noble of Phoenix heard her parents talking about a Montessori high school, she wasn’t at all interested. Having just finished middle school at Villa, she thought she was through with Montessori. But the more she thought about it, the more she realized what she had gained from the past two years: being close to her teachers and fellow students and appreciating smaller peer groups. Her mother Kelly Noble liked the idea of “small groups of learning within a larger group. Villa was a most amazing experience” and she anticipated that CMCP would be more of the same.
James Miller, 14, of Phoenix, was intrigued when he learned about the program from his homeroom teacher. “They were going to so much trouble to teach students that they must care and be serious about education. Plus all the kids in this small group are in the same position as you. It makes it easier to click and cooperate.”
Montessori education “allows for a deep sense of community and trust to develop,” says O’Neill. “Trust at this age is critical because they can ‘risk’ being who they are. There is less transitioning, less starting and stopping, which encourages a natural flow of learning.”