CPS's Montessori Story

In most cities, parents pay thousands of dollars to give their children a Montessori education. In Cincinnati Public Schools, students get the same education, emphasizing self-directed learning in a prepared environment, for free.

At five Montessori elementary schools and two Montessori high schools, Cincinnati children from preschool through 12th grade learn in a Montessori environment at a public school. Like Montessori students all over the country, CPS students partake in hands-on lessons with an emphasis on community and their role within it; they also enjoy the advantages of tuition-free public schools that serve all children. CPS’ Montessori program is renowned nationally and internationally, with educators visiting regularly to observe the schools and learn to replicate their success back home.

"Whenever anyone in the country wants to look at a model that works, they look at Cincinnati," says Tom Rothwell, CPS director of schools, who served as Clark Montessori’s first principal and also led North Avondale Montessori. "We’re the model not only for the nation but the world, with people coming from around the country and the world to see what we do, but in our own city it tends to be overlooked."

Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori developed her educational method in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After working with mentally disabled children, she applied her evolving method to teaching poor children from the slums of Rome. She observed that children had an innate desire to learn, and in the right environment with the proper materials and guidance, every child could flourish intellectually, socially, physically and morally.

Cincinnati is home to the first public Montessori school in the U.S. - Sands Montessori, founded in 1975 and the first public Montessori high school - Clark Montessori, founded in 1994. The first Montessori teacher education program at a university began at Xavier University in 1965.

"Xavier’s place as one of the first institutions to offer degrees in Montessori education really put Cincinnati and the training here at the center of the national push toward Montessori," says Crystal Dahlmeier, the program director at the Greater Cincinnati Center for Montessori Education, one of three local training centers for Montessori teachers. The educational philosophy "was such a hit when it was introduced that it just kept going. Parents drove it at least as much if not more than the school districts. They saw what was happening with their children and they wanted it to continue."

Parental involvement key
Parents of Montessori students praise the method’s emphasis on the individual, which allows each child to develop at his or her own pace. Children learn to enjoy learning as an active pursuit that encourages touching and manipulating objects, experimentation and self-reliance. Instead of desks and workbooks, Montessori classrooms are warm, open spaces where children sit at small tables or on the floor, working on their own or in small groups with materials designed especially to support their stage of development. Teachers are called "directors," and their role is to guide the child toward discovering knowledge on their own, rather than relying on lectures and rote memorization.

Children normally begin as preschoolers and stay in the same multi-age classroom, with the same teacher, through kindergarten (ages 3-6). They then move up to grades 1-3 (ages 6-9) and end elementary school in the 4-6 grade (ages 9-12) grouping. There are also programs geared toward infants and toddlers, and the number of Montessori schools educating junior and senior high schoolers is growing.

"In a lot of schools if a second-grader is doing third-grade work, there’s a stigma attached, but in Montessori, if you can do the work the teacher will give it to you," says Deirdre Larkin, a Northside parent whose daughters attend Winton Montessori. "I like the three years with one teacher, and I like how as they get older, students help the younger ones - it’s something my kids really like to do."

Cincinnati parents have a woman named Hilda Rothschild to thank for making the city a hotbed of Montessori education. Rothschild and her family had escaped Europe as Hitler rose to power and ended up in Cincinnati, where her husband worked for Hebrew Union College. Hilda Rothschild, who had studied with Maria Montessori, opened Cincinnati’s first Montessori school. As interest in the method grew during the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a dearth of trained teachers. Rothschild approached Xavier University officials and asked them to open a Montessori training center.

Sands, the first public Montessori school in the U.S., was founded in 1975 as the Children’s House in Mount Adams. The school, which was opened to satisfy a desegregation lawsuit against Cincinnati Public Schools, later moved to the West End and moved to its current Mount Washington building in 2002.

The other CPS Montessori schools include:
  • Dater Montessori in Price Hill, a magnet school serving the West Side. Dater serves students in preschool through sixth grade and is currently in a swing space while a new building is under construction.
  • North Avondale Montessori, also a magnet school, serves students in preschool through the sixth grade. North Avondale is also located in a swing space in Avondale while a new school is constructed on the site of its former building.
  • Winton Montessori, a magnet school in Spring Grove Village, is scheduled to move to the former site of Schwab school in Northside. Construction is scheduled to start next year.
  • Pleasant Ridge Montessori, the first neighborhood Montessori school in CPS, moved to its new building in the fall of 2008. When CPS decided to build a new school in Pleasant Ridge, families lobbied hard for a Montessori school in a LEED-certified building. They got both, and enrollment is running 150-200 students above expectations. 
  • Clark Montessori, the nation’s first public Montessori high school, and West Side Montessori High School, formerly Dater Montessori High, occupy the same swing space now while their buildings are under construction. Both schools require students to have previous Montessori experience.
One highlight of the high schools is the intersession courses, two-week immersion field studies held twice a year. Examples of intersession work include marine biology in the Bahamas, the flora and fauna of the Appalachian Trial, film and nutrition studies. Seniors are also expected to complete a year-long senior project with a culminating exhibition that demonstrates the skills they’ve mastered in their Montessori career.

"We couldn’t do any of this without these coming through these elementary schools," Rothwell says. "They know how to treat each other, work together and be on their own. There’s no magic to any of this - it boils down to passion, commitment and hard work."

Photography by Scott Beseler
at Pleasant Ridge Montessori
Special thanks to my models
Coreaisha, Sydney, Tyler, and Wyatt
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