When Maria Cole decided to build her Montessori school on Mud Island in 1991, the neighborhood was in its infancy. Houses were just being built, Harbor Town Center was still a dusty vacant lot. But the appeal of being close to the river, with its green space and birdlife, was huge.
“I love the river,” says Cole. “It was a home for us and a draw for Harbor Town.”
Maria began with 50 students (her own two children among them), families who transitioned with her from St. Michael’s on Summer Avenue where Cole first started her school. While some thought she was crazy to go downtown, she had a solid base of parents who believed in Montessori “and were willing to make the trek,” she says.
When Maria Montessori School (MMS) opened, it served as the neighborhood meeting place and 25 years later, continues to be a vital part of the community. Twelve of its 15 faculty members have been with Cole from the beginning. They now serve 110 students from preschoolers to eighth graders who come to Mud Island from across the city.
Jill Klosky arrived at MMS in 2004 needing childcare. Her 12- and 8-year-old boys have been students ever since. She says the school’s instructional style has been a good fit for their family. The Montessori method “honors the individuality of the child, and encourages growth and exploration, both academically and in the world,” says Klosky. “We feel like our teachers really know and love our children,”
Look inside the Montessori classroom and you’ll see busyness, but there’s also a fair degree of freedom. The Montessori method encourages children to learn by doing, delving deep into topics, going as far as their curiosity and understanding will take them. Teachers function as guides and multi-aged classrooms promote collaboration as older kids assist younger ones. “Subjects are taught so that children really develop a deep understanding of the topic, which sets them up with a strong foundation as they become more advanced,” says Klosky.
The school also fosters independence, by having child-sized materials in the room that enable students to do their work more easily.
“To watch them understand community, respect space, to learn to share,” says Primary Guide Russell Griffin. “It’s special to watch that interaction with each other.”
As dismissal time nears, materials are put away and children get busy wiping down tables, sweeping classrooms, and feeding the chickens near the gardens they tend. The idea of community is strong, “It’s important children have a sense of purpose,” observes Cole.
“The school takes the time to know and understand each child in a way that no other place or pedagogy can match,” says mom Sarah Tauer. “Each of our children are very different people, yet they all love school. MMS has given them an exceptional desire to learn and succeed.”
I peek into the room of outdoor guide, Fletcher Golden, who teaches kayaking and leads nature hikes. Since the garden is quiet, Golden is sharing his sculpting skills and students have sketched out ideas they’re sculpting into limestone slabs using hammers and chisels.
“In addition to the exploration that takes place within the schoolhouse walls, the outdoor learning has proven to be valuable, too, increasing their appreciation of natural beauty and better overall understanding of the world around them,” says mom Connie Binkowitz. “I was concerned with finding a school that would give my children the freedom to creatively explore their inner-potential while constructively challenging them, but we have found that at MMS.”
Says Cole of her endeavor, “The school has far exceeded any vision I ever had.” She’s remains one of only two Montessori schools in Tennessee accredited by Association Montessori International. “It’s a way of safeguarding the method and training of teachers. It keeps our standards high,” she say. “We recognize the potential of each child and encourage their self-discovery, curiosity, and love of learning.”