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By Kara Pound
Photos by Kate Gardiner

It’s a chilly morning in early December and the two upper elementary classrooms of St. Augustine Public Montessori School (SAPMS), housed in the historical Mary Peck House on San Marco Avenue, are busy at work.

The kids, ranging from fourth-graders to sixth-graders, accomplish tasks at their own pace regardless of ability level or age. This is just one of the many unique characteristics that sets a Montessori education apart from that of traditional learning.

“Our philosophy is that we are guiding them in their education while igniting a flame for learning,” explains Ann Johnson, the school’s director who came on board at the start of the school year. “We, and I mean myself, the staff and teachers, support them with materials and basic life lessons, like taking care of each other and our environment.”

Developed by Dr. Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator, the first Montessori school opened in 1907 in Rome, Italy and has gained popularity over the past century. According to the American Montessori Society, there are 4,000 Montessori schools in America with more than 22,000 in total, in 110 countries worldwide.

“As an adult, I was drawn to Montessori through her presentations of science,” explains Jean McDowell, a mother of three and founder of St. Augustine Public Montessori School, of the education movement’s founder. “Her articulation of the love and respect for nature and elementary science-based lessons provided the support and structure to a philosophy I already held.”

Founded just a few short years ago, SAPMS now boasts 125 students, in grades one through six, who learn in mixed-age classrooms of three-year spans. And while the school is part of the St. Johns County School District (SJCSD), it is governed independently by a non-profit organization Board of Trustees, it is however, still held accountable by the SJCSD and State Department of Education.

“We abide by state standards as far as teaching credentials, class size, state testing and various policies,” says Johnson, who has 35 years of teaching experience behind her. “But we are able to integrate other unique aspects of Montessori learning, such as spending a lot of time outdoors and focusing on the development of the whole child.”

St. Augustine Public Montessori School, which is housed in a six-building campus offs San Marco Avenue in the Uptown area of Old City, is not the first school of its kind in the area. Jeannie Buskirk founded Moultrie Montessori School, a private preschool and elementary school on South Dixie Highway, in 2008.

“I was teaching at Moultrie and relied a lot on Jeannie for inspiration and support in writing the charter and starting the school,” McDowell explains of the early days of establishing SAPMS. “My family spent a year planning to move to Savannah where there are two public Montessori schools, but decided to help start one within the public school system here, so that it was financially available to all families.”

According to McDowell, there are many reasons she values a Montessori education. Just a few of them include, “uninterrupted, three-hour work cycles for children to develop deep concentration and big works, an emphasis on cooperation without competition and an integrated curriculum that connects discipline areas beyond solo-type reading and math instruction.”

Johnson, who moved to St. Augustine over the summer from Minneapolis (she was the first African- American Montessori teacher ever in the city) and now finds herself the head of one of the area’s most unique educational experiences, says that it’s more than a different approach to learning that fosters empathy and civility amongst her students.

“We teach them everything from how to properly carry a chair, so that they don’t bump into each other,” she says. “to something we did recently, which was collect teddy bears for one of our student’s fathers, a surgeon, to bring down to Haiti to give to children upon whom he was performing surgeries.”

Johnson and parents like McDowell have big plans for the future of SAPMS. They are currently in the planning phase of introducing a primary program for the 2018-2019 school year, which would include ages three through five.

“I think every community needs Montessori schools,” says McDowell. “Dr. Montessori began her schools with poor and orphaned children, and spent much of her life’s work on peace education. I feel that today’s Montessori schools can be a model for implementing social justice work in and through education.”

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