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A Public Montessori High School: Perfect Graduation Rate

Susan Notes: In a city labelled "academic emergency" this Montessori school stands out as exemplary. Why doesn't Education Week pump up this model along with their puffery on America's Choice?

Tucked away behind a tree-covered lawn in Hyde Park is one of Cincinnati Public School District's best examples of an excellent school.

Clark Montessori Junior and Senior High School marks its 10th anniversary this year. Started as a Montessori junior high, Clark became the nation's first public Montessori high school in 1997. It remains one of only a handful of public Montessori high schools.

While the rest of the 39,000-student district is labeled in "academic emergency" by the state, Clark stands out for its high test scores and perfect graduation rate .

Supporters praise the school for valuing students' opinions and allowing them to explore their strengths and creativity in a relaxed, but demanding, academic setting.

As an entry requirement, students must sign a contract saying they understand the value of peace and will make a strong commitment to learning, community involvement, hard work and respect. Faculty members say they honor those commitments in return.

"Kids here know that they are cared about," said Clark's program coordinator, Marta Donahoe. "When they know that, they work hard."

They fought 10 years for it

The school's early advocates cared so much about the kids and the program that they fought 10 years to get it.

The Montessori method, developed by Italian doctor Maria Montessori in the early 1900s, emphasizes teaching through all the senses as opposed to a rigid classroom atmosphere dominated by lecture and rote memorization.

Teachers incorporate hands-on lessons so students can learn through experience. Classrooms, in which students are grouped by age rather than grade, are open and carpeted so the learning environment is comfortable and casual.

Cincinnati Public Schools first embraced Montessori teaching for elementary-school students nearly three decades ago.

Since then, Cincinnati's Montessori programs have been in high demand. Until registration procedures were changed, parents used to camp overnight to enroll their children in a Montessori school.

But the parents wanted the Montessori experience to go beyond the sixth grade.

"I think parents really liked the education their children were getting," said school board member Sally Warner, one of the parents who fought for the school 20 years ago. "Everybody loved what was happening through sixth grade and they wanted to continue it."

After a decade of parent and teacher lobbying, the district opened the Montessori junior high in 1994 at Jacobs Center in Winton Hills. It later moved to the former Highlands Elementary School building in the East End, where it added ninth and 10th grades.

When the 220 students outgrew that location, they moved to Peoples Middle School in Hyde Park in 1999. Supporters agreed to help refurbish it.

Now the school has about 600 students in grades 7-12. Although the district's overall enrollment is declining, Clark has a waiting list of about 100 potential students.

No shoes, no shirt, OK

Students say they like the school for its casual atmosphere and varied learning techniques.

Barefoot students often sprawl on the floor to work on math problems or discuss the novels they're reading. Directions for lessons are presented in several formats to reach kids who learn differently.

Teacher Tamara Brown has a green-and-white striped sofa in the corner of her classroom where kids work on poetry.

"Writing your own poetry can be intimidating," she said. "Since poetry stresses them out, I like it to be the most comfy area in the room."

Across the hall, another teacher decorated a wall with purple-and-blue plaid wallpaper. Corner desk lamps cast a yellow hue across the room and dim the harsh fluorescent ceiling lights.

The casual attitude extends beyond furniture and fixtures.

Teachers encourage students to challenge them and express individual views.

"Everybody has their own opinion and everyone listens to everyone's point of view," said sophomore Keith Hickson, 17. "The school is pretty open-minded."

Students address teachers by first names and teachers often ask students' opinions on a lesson, rather than preaching to them.

"We have this attitude that we're in it together," Brown said. "It's not necessarily that we are the teachers and you are the students, but that we are all learning and (the teachers) are in the position to share what we know.'

Laid-back but demanding

Amid the laid-back attitudes, Clark expects students to meet high standards.

All seniors are graduating this year and the 44 graduates have amassed more than $1.5 million in scholarships, Principal Thomas Rothwell said.

The school received an "excellent" rating from the state, the highest of five ratings schools and districts can receive for student graduation rates, attendance and proficiency-test scores.

"The state standards are fine, but we go way beyond that," Donahoe said.

During a recent science lesson, for example, science teacher Barb Scholtz sent her students outside to collect seeds. Before they left the room, she asked them how they would know when to return because she refused to scream out the window for them. The students discussed their options and borrowed a stopwatch.

Without fail, all returned on time, she said.

In addition to creative academics, students are required to perform 200 hours of community service with a social-service agency and complete special projects. Students might visit historic civil rights sites in the south, study marine biology in the Bahamas, explore Irish history and culture in Ireland, work on a farm in Vermont or study the flora and fauna along the Appalachian trail.

Despite criticisms that Montessori teaching isn't rigid enough and that students aren't prepared for the structure of college and the workplace, supporters say Clark offers the best education possible for its students.

A traditional school didn't work for junior Bruce Vissing, 17.

"I didn't like sitting at a desk every day doing packets of work," he said. "There was no interaction with the other students."

Vissing said the Montessori method allows him to explore lessons through open discussion with teachers and students, helping him to retain lessons, rather than just memorize them. He also appreciates the learning that goes on outside the classroom.

"I like the whole experience," he said.

E-mail jmrozowski@enquirer.com

Clark Montessori was founded as a Montessori junior high in 1994 and later expanded to include the nation's first public Montessori high school.
Enrollment: 584
Seniors graduating: 100 percent
State rating: excellent
African-American students: 244
Asian: 16
Hispanic: 2
Multi-racial: 19
Caucasian: 303
Source: Clark Montessori; Cincinnati Public Schools

— Jennifer Mrozowski
This school's raised the bar: Beyond seeming madness is a method that works
Cincinnati Enquirer


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