Ten Year Anniversary Series: one school built a community

On the first Friday of Cincinnati Public School’s 2018-2019 school year, The Red Balloon Café + Play in Pleasant Ridge is bustling with students from the nearby diverse neighborhood elementary school. Kids in Pleasant Ridge Montessori (PRM) tie-dyed shirts and uniforms clamor for after-school snacks and drinks. Amid the chaos, Francesca Bownas-Rayburn starts tearing up.

“I’m sorry,” she says, wiping her eyes. “I get really emotional when I’m talking about our school. PRM is going to teach our kids so much … about the world they live in.”

All three of Bownas-Rayburn children have attended PRM since it was transformed from the failing Pleasant Ridge Elementary to a Montessori format in a new building. Her son Will — now a 10th-grade honors student at Walnut Hills — was one of the first kids to start preschool under the new program.

“We had our son, and [noticed our] neighbors with school-aged kids, none of them sent their kids to Pleasant Ridge Elementary,” she says. “There were North Avondale (Montessori) families, there were Nativity families, there was a homeschool family, but there were no Pleasant Ridge Elementary families.”

She goes on to explain that when Will was 3, she camped out at North Avondale, a magnet school, to secure a spot in preschool. (The old first-come, first-served “camp-out” system to secure a spot in Cincinnati Public’s magnet schools has since been changed to an online lottery system that makes selections at random.) While there, she met mostly Pleasant Ridge families, all vying for spots.

“It was very communal,” she says. “We’d get together around a little campfire in the evenings, and I remember talking to my husband: ‘I don’t care what school my kid goes to, I want him to go with these families because … we have similar values.’ It would be great if we all wound up in the same school; it’s a shame that we all live in Pleasant Ridge, and that we’re all coming here to do it.”

That was in 2005. Back then, Pleasant Ridge Elementary had begun its transformation to Pleasant Ridge Montessori, but it had to start with a new building. For the time being, current students were sent to the Bramble School in Madisonville, and newly enrolled preschoolers were taught at the nearby Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church. In August of 2008, the new building opened as one of the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver buildings in Ohio, with lots of natural light and solar roof panels, among other things.

The school’s location was set, but its future was unknown.

Bownas-Rayburn’s son ended up on the waiting list for North Avondale, but administrators told Pleasant Ridge families that PRM was a newer Montessori alternative, and there was no wait list. Anyone in Pleasant Ridge could enroll, but some parents were hesitant to try out a new school based on its old reputation.

However, when Will didn’t get into North Avondale, Bownas-Rayburn and her husband decided on PRM. And, according to her, they never looked back.

David Knutson’s twin daughters were also among the first preschoolers to start at PRM. Like Bownas-Rayburn, he didn’t have any neighbors who sent their kids to Pleasant Ridge Elementary.

“The building looked really, really unkempt,” he says. “It was a classic old school building but it just hadn’t been maintained over the years,” he says. “So it just wasn’t on the radar for families who had the means to send their children to other schools.”

He goes on to explain that before his daughter’s were born, he heard there were plans to turn the neighborhood school into a Montessori school. “It sounded like a good initiative,” he says. “Anything to improve education, anything to improve our neighborhood school was easy to get behind.”

So when the new building opened the year his daughters turned 3, it seemed like the best option, thanks, in part, to the new program and many new faculty members. “It was a simple choice for us,” he says. “We really liked the convenience of being in the neighborhood.”

Having a neighborhood Montessori, however, presents its own set of challenges. The traditional Montessori philosophy, created by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori, first took root in Rome in the early 1900s. The premise is that children are naturally eager for knowledge and capable of initiating their own learning in supportive environments with multiage groups to foster peer learning, uninterrupted blocks of work time, and guided choices of work time and activity. It’s a kid-centered education focusing on the whole child, including physical, emotional, social, and cognitive development. Because of this, many Montessori schools are private or magnet, ensuring that only parents who support this philosophy enroll their kids.

Unlike other traditional Montessori schools, enrollment at PRM is open, meaning the classrooms can grow or shrink throughout the year as people move in and out. This often creates inconsistency in classroom learning, and also means that parents who enroll their children don’t necessarily understand (or support) the philosophy.

“I think there are lots of concerns about safety and security and discipline,” says Knuston. “If there were real dissatisfactions in the first years at PRM, I think it did relate to student discipline, and that was just a result of getting used to such a diverse — ethnically diverse and economically diverse — student body. A lot of people felt uncomfortable with the language some classmates used or what they talked about going on at home.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge at PRM is effectively educating children from a variety of backgrounds. PRM is a Title 1 school, which means that it receives supplemental funds due to a high concentration of poverty. Many students come from traumatic backgrounds, poverty-stricken homes, or emotionally and physically abusive situations.

“Several things come to mind when referring to patience and discipline,” says Chris Collier, who was PRM’s assistant principal from 2014–2018 until she retired. “It includes working with the children and the adults involved in the school. The whole instigation of the community Montessori school required a vision that was persistent but patient, and the perseverance of seeing it through.”

Two groups — the Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) and the PRM Foundation, a nonprofit started by Ruth Anne Wolf, another original PRM parent — have spent the past decade working together to raise funds, provide resources, and develop whole-school initiatives to better serve the growing, diverse student body. Thanks to community-wide efforts, the school has a nature playscape for recess and a community garden for outdoor education, plus countless resources inside the building for technology and overall support.

The most recent initiative came after one 6-9 teacher requested training in mindfulness and trauma-informed care because, as Bownas-Rayburn paraphrased, “A whole warehouse of full of Montessori materials aren’t going to matter if kids are not mentally and emotionally ready to learn.”

Parent Nicole Webb led the charge and organized a two-year commitment to implement this training, thanks, to a partnership between the Foundation, Cincinnati Public Schools, and Joining Forces for Children.

“So we have a whole year of training for staff and IPPs (Instructional Para Professionals) free of charge,” says Bownas-Rayburn. “The only thing we’re going to be spending money on are materials for quiet corners … and if we need in the next year to follow up with materials to support the training, we’ve got that already built in.”

With this training, school staff and administrators will be able to build on their existing “whole child” philosophies.

“One thing that PRM teaches that is not in the standards is how to love beyond the actions, how to be patient, how to see the value in each child,” says Collier. “This is the strongest Montessori element at PRM: building community. As with each standard we are required to teach, some are ready for it and some are not. The lessons occur daily. It is life. It is with whom who we share this planet. And again, it all boils down to our capacity to love.”

There’s no doubt that the next 10 years will bring new challenges, especially as the student population continues to grow — and possibly outgrow — the building. But since so much of the school’s success is directly attributed to intense parent, teacher, and community involvement, they will no doubt handle each new challenge in stride.

“It is driven by love,” says Collier. “Love of children. Love of the idea we can all do better. Love of the truth that we all have something to contribute. Love of a diverse community. Love of the Montessori method. Follow the child and your path is illuminated.”

For more information about Pleasant Ridge Montessori, visit prmrocks.org.

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Read more articles by Jessica Esemplare.

Jessica Esemplare is the managing editor of Soapbox Cincinnati and a graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Shortly after completing her degree in magazine journalism, she began covering local and regional topics at The Cincinnati Herald and, later, as an editor at Ohio Magazine. Her writing has also been featured in U.S. News and World Report.