Covington’s Community Montessori Takes Flight During a Pandemic

Opening a new school during a pandemic seems crazy, but for Community Montessori in Covington, the timing was perfect.

Outside the old First United Methodist Church on East Fifth Street in Covington, which is now the new Community Montessori school, there’s a delicate string of pendant flags wrapping the black iron fence. On them are kid-scrawled messages such as: “We love that students can learn at their own pace,” and “Do love, not hate,” and “Imagination does not become great until human beings use it to create.” Inside is the bustle of an ending school day. Once the kids have exited, a masked repair man scales a ladder to do work in a hallway. Community Montessori is transforming its space and, in its way, is still in the process of becoming.

Illustration by Traci Daberko

Between a global pandemic, school shutdowns, and the public health complexities of managing any facility open to the public, fall 2020 was an ambitious time to open a school. But Community Montessori’s teachers and head of school Terri Rentrop had been contemplating starting their own school for a few years. In some ways, this was the perfect moment. The chaos of pandemic education had raised questions in the minds of their students’ parents. “I think it really opened people’s eyes and minds to say, ‘You know, what do we really want out of education?’ ” says Rentrop. The church building came available, exactly in the location they’d wanted. They plunged ahead.

The staff of nine teachers would have to forego many of the elements of launching a new school they’d planned. There would be no meet and greet, no uniform exchange, none of the field trips and overnight trips, no start of year picnic, or direct outreach at neigh­borhood events—because due to COVID, those groups weren’t meeting. At the same time, this school year “was going to be weird no matter where we were,” says Ana Summe, lower elementary lead teacher. “It might as well be weird in our own school.”

The school was designed to be deeply rooted in its surrounding community. Kids would walk to the nearby library. A partnership with Baker Hunt Art and Cultural Center, a four-minute walk away, would allow for unique art classes. They’d walk to the river to learn in a hands-on way. In addition to heading the school, Rentrop teaches Community Class to all grade levels. For parents like Heidi Overwine, part of Community Montessori’s appeal would be how ingrained her children could become in the surrounding community. Learning isn’t limited to the school building, but “they can learn anywhere in the community,” says Overwine.

Those neighborhood connections became vital in September 2020 as Kentucky’s remote learning recommendations lifted, but before all the building’s classrooms were ready. The pre-primary teacher set up class on the playground. McHale’s Catering down the street offered up Odd Fellows Hall, which wasn’t being utilized due to the pandemic, and so for some students the in-person part of the school year started in a ballroom. Soon, the gym at Community Montessori’s building was OK’d for occupancy and used as two classrooms. By the time the school’s virtual shift between Thanksgiving and the New Year wrapped, classrooms were ready for all the students.

The shifts between unique learning environments as the building was readied fell into a year in which everyone was adapting to changing circumstances, and the students and their families rolled with it. Coming from the Montessori tradition—an educational model perhaps most known for its flexibility and philosophy of following the child—meant that spirit of adaptability was core to how teachers responded to students’ needs in this strange time.

As the pandemic revealed broken points in many systems, the upheaval within our education system left some parents looking for alternatives.

After months of virtual learning and pandemic anxiety, some parents divulged how their kids were suffering. Some didn’t want to come out of their rooms at home. Others’ social needs were impossible to fulfill in an era of distance and quarantine. “There’s that component of Montessori education that’s focused on the social and emotional development of the child, so that was my focus coming into this year,” says Summe, who teaches 6 through 9 year olds. She tried to build connections between students when they couldn’t physically be together. Now her classroom is a sprawling space with stained glass windows, old hardwood and what looks like Rookwood tile with areas designated for learning math, culture, botany, history, geography, grammar, and reading.

As in Summe’s classroom, children stay with one teacher for a three-year period. The teacher gets to know each child well, understand their learning style, and in a multi-age classroom, the students have flexibility to learn at their own pace. Younger children learn from older children; older children reinforce ideas for themselves while acting as teachers to younger classmates.

Another attribute built into the school’s culture is broad acceptance, a space of welcome needed at all times, but especially comforting in a time of outside uncertainty. “Children all have their own creative things and little things that they do, and, you know, you might see this kid who likes to do some goofy thing all the time,” says Rentrop. In the Montessori tradition, chasing one’s interests is encouraged and what might be treated as different elsewhere is simply understood as “Well, yeah, that’s just what they do.”

“I think it has to do too with just the way we handle things as Montessorians,” says Summe. The classroom environment is designed so teachers are integrated with the students, on their level, and if feelings are hurt, the teacher often sees it. If not, “the children also see us as being very accessible. They can approach us and say, ‘This happened just now and it really hurt my feelings. I may need you.’ ” Summe then asks if the hurt feelings are just something the child needs her to know about or if they need an immediate conflict resolution meeting, “so they are not stewing in those confused feelings of having their feelings hurt by your friend” without the friend noticing.

“We teach them from the time they are little that if you need help with something, go and ask your friend, ask your friend for help,” notes Rentrop.

At Community Montessori, children “get to be themselves without any judgment,” says Overwine. Her son, age 7, is autistic and Overwine sees Montessori’s “follow the child” approach “almost like an IEP [individualized education plan], but for each child.” If her son is feeling anxiety or escalating, he knows to go to his peaceful place at home, one just like what he has at school. “So he’s able to use some of the lessons that he learns here to cope in his daily living, which for me is a blessing because that’s part of that therapy he gets outside of Montessori that aligns with the Montessori thoughts.”

The school is absorbing lessons from its students too. If the older, junior high students don’t feel well and want to do online school for the day, why not? “We didn’t spread anything in the school this year,” notes Rentrop, when in prior years the flu or strep throat might sweep a classroom or building. With protocols in place, at the time of reporting, there hadn’t been any spread of COVID cases within the building, though there were a few isolated cases.

The building is not yet operating at capacity. There were a total of 70 Community Montessori students this year, split between pre-primary to eighth grade. Eventually, the school will be able to take 110 students, with a goal of maintaining diversity that matches the surrounding community racially and economically. Summe has sought out help translating the school’s application into Spanish to help increase outreach to Spanish-speaking parents. It’s a consciously nondenominational school, although Maria Montessori (Montessori education’s founder) was herself a Catholic who was influenced by time spent in India, Summe notes. The approach is instead one that weaves in a philosophy of peace, Summe continues, that exposes children to the world’s religions and indigenous cultures.

Rentrop describes the annual tuition of $6,000 per year for K–8 students as affordable for Montessori education, and set in such a way as to attract an even mix of lower-, middle-, and upper-income families. The school’s board is working to develop a scholarship fund, with the help of seed funds from a foundation that wants to remain anonymous. Rentrop notes they are also considering a sponsorship program so families that can afford it can chip in to help sponsor another child through eighth grade. “Our goal is that we do have people who are paying full tuition and maybe some that just need a little bit of help with their tuition, and then some that might need a lot more help with their tuition.”

Community Montessori opened during a period of open reflection on what education should be, a response to a time in which some districts’ lessons were reduced to remote worksheets, many kids across the country have fallen behind grade level, parents struggled to do their jobs while tending to their kids’ virtual learning, and many teachers simultaneously juggled in-person and virtual students on hybrid schedules. Much as the pandemic revealed broken points in many systems, the upheaval experienced within our education system left some parents looking for alternatives as we return to some semblance of normalcy. On this front, Community Montessori offers another option.

“The frustrating part about the public school system is that all their funding is tied in with their test results,” says Overwine.

“For most of us in Montessori, testing is not a big piece of school. It’s not in the lower elementary. There’s no testing, not even, you know, math tests,” notes Rentrop. As students reach the age 6 to 9 classroom, there’s a little bit. In junior high there’s a bit more, to help prepare students for high school entrance tests. “Testing can be a good benchmark, can be a good indicator for you,” Rentrop says. “Montessori is based a lot on observation though, so you’re really finding out more about the child by observing how they’re working than testing.”

For teachers like Summe, this means ongoing observation of students’ struggles and success in learning, doing regular one-on-one assessments. She sees this as vital information and higher quality than what a standardized test might tell her. Tests are a way to gauge progress, sure. But, says Summe, “I’ve never once had a test tell me something I didn’t already know about a child.” Never once has she given a class a standardized test and thought “all of this is going to be so accurate because they were all here on time. None of them were tired. There were none of them who were over-analyzing anything.” She’s never thought from a scientific perspective, “this was a great control group.”

Children aren’t standardizable units, and during a time period when children have absorbed so much chaos into their lives, outside factors can obviously influence their learning. This is why teaching centered on each child’s social and emotional growth has been so important for Summe.

“With the pandemic and with parents having their children at home…they’re looking at, OK, what is it that we’re really looking for in an education?” Rentrop says. “We might be getting some of those people coming through that are going, You know what, let’s get rid of the traditional thought that we have of what school is.

For all its chaos, that time of pandemic-required school shut-downs placed parents intimately in relationship with their children and their educations. These are parents who know their children, says Summe. Perhaps they have a deeper appreciation for how their child absorbs new information, what helps them thrive, what they need to overcome natural hurdles, what emotional needs need nurturing. “They’re seeing their children as learners,” says Summe. In that light, a new place to learn, folded into a community and based on their individual needs, can seem like a great place to grow and to redefine what going to school means.

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