Rapidly growing Gamble High School is a rarity in the neighborhood

The first day of school last year at Gamble Montessori High School was a little chaotic, as they often are everywhere.

It was the first day in a new location, with hundreds of students and parents flowing in during the morning rush to the new site, the former Mother of Mercy of High School on busy Werk Road in Westwood.

For some reason, the street signs warning drivers to reduce their speed in the school zone weren’t flashing as they should have been. Just months after a series of accidents involving pedestrians in Westwood, safety was on the mind of the school’s new principal, Taylor Porter.

Although there may have been a thousand other things that demanded his attention that day, “I decided to put a vest on and go out there and control traffic myself,” Porter says.

Porter got slapped on the wrist for that but, “No kids were hit, and no kids were hurt, so I’ll take it,” he says.

The authorities may have taken a dim view of the principal’s ad hoc traffic control, but at least one Gamble Montessori parent was thoroughly impressed.

“That was the moment when I said, ‘We are sending our son to the right school,’” says Andrea Boettcher. “It felt like he understood the community and what it was all about.”

Only 12 years old, Gamble Montessori High School has quickly become an anchor institution in Cincinnati’s largest neighborhood.

The school opened in Westwood in 2008 with 170 students in the basement of another school building. Enrollment grew quickly, as Gamble is one of only two Montessori high schools in the Cincinnati Public School district. The other is Clark Montessori in the east side neighborhood of Hyde Park.

Just since 2018, enrollment at Gamble Montessori High has grown more than 40 percent, with 640 high schoolers now on the books. The growth has meant two moves since it opened, and the latest one could be the last for a while.

In August 2019, Gamble moved to the former Mother of Mercy school, which was a 104-year-old West Side Catholic institution. Gamble students now have the benefit of a 14-acre campus (when the Cincinnati School Board decides that it’s safe to return) and millions of dollars in upgraded facilities and technology.

“The district spent almost $16 million taking this building down to the studs and building it back up,” Porter says. “[It’s now] a 100-year-old building with $16 million worth of brains underneath the walls.”

Montessori high schools are relatively rare. Preschools and elementaries that use the Montessori tradition of child-led, self-paced, collaborative learning are fairly common, with an estimated 500 of them in the nation. But there are only about 25 such high schools in the country.

Students can now attend Gamble Montessori from preschool through high school, although the preschool and elementary grades through grade 6 are housed in another building in the neighborhood.

That possibility is enticing young families to move to the community. Boettcher and her family moved to Westwood in 2012 and, like many West Side families, sent their kids to a Catholic school. In 2015, they moved out to Colerain Township to a big house on a two-acre, wooded lot.

But they missed the old neighborhood and in 2017 they moved back to a much smaller house.

“It was important enough for us to be in that location that we sacrificed some other comforts just to get back into Westwood,” she says.

They had heard about the new location for Gamble high school and enrolled son Harrison, who’s now in the 8th grade. He walks to school and the program has made a difference for their 13-year-old son, Andrea says.

“He came to question how he’s going to learn and explore, and it’s really made him a lot more independent,” she says.

Naya Sackey and her family have lived in Westwood since 2011, and her 12-year-old daughter just started her first year at Gamble High. She is hoping her 10-year-old son will enroll there too.

“I love the Montessori system,” she says. “It’s much better for her than traditional education.”

That’s music to Principal Porter’s ears, as he has improved the curriculum, adding four Advanced Placement courses, as well as options for seniors to gain college credits.

He notes that Gamble is a federal Title I school, which means that at least 40 percent of the students are from low-income families. The student population is 74% black, 16% white, and 10% Asian, Hispanic, or mixed race.

“We’re making sure our kids are not missing out on something,” he says. “This is still an urban district.”

Before arriving at Gamble, Porter was a principal at Westerville South High School, a big, suburban public school outside of Columbus, a school that enjoys a long tradition.

“That allowed me to see how a large-scale high school operated,” he says. “Not that I can take that program and slap it down here. That would never work. But it did give me a couple new vantage points about how you do school leadership and what’s going on with some of these big suburbs that maybe our kids are missing out on. And how to align that with a Montessori program.”

Gamble may be the only high school in the state offers a Korean language program, and it has also started an innovative career-oriented program in horticulture and agriculture.

Porter grew up in a household with 12 siblings, five of them adopted, and he worked in the foster care field for a few years before entering a school leadership program and getting on the path to public education.

He has Westwood roots, having lived on Montana Avenue for a time. He met his wife at the Westwood Library and eventually proposed marriage to her on the library steps.

He played football at University of Cincinnati, first for Coach Mark Dantonio, and then for Brian Kelly on the 2007 team that broke into the nation’s Top 25 ranks.

His days directing traffic in front of the high school may be over, but it’s a sure bet that if that ever needs to be done again, he’ll be out there in an orange vest looking out for the kids.

The On The Ground: Westwood feature series is made possible with support from The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. / U. S. Bank Foundation.

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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.