Saturday, February 9, 2019

Meet Dr. Timothy Purnell: AMS Executive Director

Meet Dr. Timothy Purnell: AMS Executive Director

Dr. Timothy Purnell wants to make the world a better place, and the evidence so far shows that he’s making pretty good progress. Purnell’s roots are in public education, and he has spent many years in the field, serving as a teacher, superintendent, and adjunct professor, among other roles. Prior to becoming Execu
tive Director of AMS in August 2017, Purnell won honors including the National Superintendent of the Year Award, the You Make a Difference Award, the Governor’s Teaching Recognition Award, the Weston Teaching in Excellence Award, and a Geraldine Dodge Fellowship School Leadership Award.

Purnell’s enthusiasm lies in finding ways to help every child become a “captain of his or her ow
n learning.” As superintendent of Somerville Public Schools in Somerville, New Jersey, Purnell helped develop a high school for at-risk youth, where students have agency in guiding their education and pacing themselves. He also met regularly with a student cabinet, composed of children from grades 2-12 with a wide variety of backgrounds and academic abilities. That group of students set standards and agendas for each meeting, coordinated refreshments, invited guests, and orchestrated outcomes and follow-up.

“The most difficult transition to my role at AMS was the loss of my direct connection with children, particularly those who are at-risk,” says Purnell. “I have a passion to mentor children who are disadvantaged. On the other hand, not only does AMS share my commitment to make the world a better place, I am now able to work with educators and policymakers on a global scale – and this is thrilling to me.” 

As part of his first year with AMS, Purnell spent time conducting a “listening and learning tour” of some of AMS’s member schools and affiliated teacher education programs, both in the U.S. and overseas. In addition to helping him become familiar with the nation’s larger Montessori network, the tour gave Purnell an opportunity to talk directly with teachers and administrators and find out how AMS could better serve them. Purnell notes that members stated desires for more guest speakers, assistance with leadership searches and identifying guest speakers for local events, more online learning and other professional development opportunities, and language translations of Montessori information. 

Partly as a result of that tour, Purnell spoke about a few exciting shifts that we can look forward to at AMS. “We are exploring ways to provide more services and better support to our individual members, schools, and teacher education programs, and to ensure consistency of learner outcomes among our TEPs,” he says. “We will also be separating the concept of school quality from school membership. I’m sure we’ve all seen subpar Montessori schools with AMS membership certificates hanging on their walls, which might indirectly connote quality; this is something we will be addressing. Along with this, we will be bringing heightened awareness to member schools meeting specific indicators of best practices.”

Purnell describes joining AMS as “being part of the largest Montessori movement and networking opportunity in the world.” Members have the power to “foster a strong movement of change that will impact public policy, legislative decisions, and parental choice in Montessori opportunities,” he says. “There is power in voice, and we plan to amplify that voice in all aspects of mainstream media and research institutions.” 

Purnell enjoys talking with anyone who has a passion for Montessori education. He urges those with comments or questions to contact him directly, either through LinkedIn (Timothy Purnell, EdD), Twitter (@drpurnell), or his TimeTrade account.

“We are listening to your concerns and are making adjustments to better support the great work that you are doing,” says Purnell. “Become involved as we evoke the realm of possibilities, dream without limitations, and make the world a better place for our future!”

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Archgate Montessori Academy

School Profile: Archgate Montessori Academy

A beautiful mix of the old and the new, Archgate Montessori Academy in Plano opened more than 30 years ago but just recently rebranded with a new name and a new logo. Called Montessori New Beginnings Academy until just over a year ago, Archgate has expanded its elementary program and now welcomes students through sixth grade, which is part of what prompted the name change. The campus will add middle school grades soon as well.

“It felt like ‘New Beginnings’ was not representative of our older studArchgate’s Head of School. “To include the whole community, we looked at a rebranding scheme. The name ‘Archgate’ pulls from the community – there’s a street and a park called Archgate behind the property.”
ents,” says Rebecca Bernard,

The property Bernard refers to is 7 1/2 acres of land with a large green space and creatively designed environmental features, including a pollinator garden, a natural playscape, a “treehouse-on-the-ground,” nature trails, a creek, wooden obstacle courses, and music gardens. Bernard calls it “our own little piece of paradise.”

“We have a master gardener on staff, and the amount of wildlife that comes through here is just not seen anywhere else,” she says. “We are so fortunate; we’re able to be outdoors year-round.”

Archgate purchased its current property about a dozen years ago, but the school started in 1986 in a small commercial retail site, when a group of local parents were driven to provide a high-quality education alternative to their children. Back then, there were just two classrooms and about 30 students. Now, Archgate has nine classrooms and about 165 students total – and is preparing to expand even further. By early fall, the school will break ground on 31,000 square feet on their existing property, allowing them the opportunity to add a full gymnasium, dining area, commercial kitchen, library and technology area, and creative makers’ labs for each classroom.

Originally established as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Archgate has stayed true to that mission for more than 30 years and remains governed by a Board of Trustees.

“[Nonprofit status] changes the approach and the decision-making,” says Bernard. “Everything we do is about education. Everything is made for the students, for the teachers, and for the school, to make sure we can follow the best practices possible.”
Following a co-teaching model, Archgate employs two certified guides in each classroom who partner with each other in leading their students. Bernard says that most Archgate staff members stay with the school for an average of 10 years, but it’s not unusual for some to stay much longer. The founding teacher is now preparing for retirement after 32 years with Archgate, and another teacher is celebrating a 30-year anniversary soon.

Bernard was working in special education when she discovered the Montessori method, which clicked with her immediately. “It’s perfect for every child,” she says. “I’ve been in the administration portion of Montessori ever since, because that’s where my passion is. The teachers provide the magic and the classrooms are where it happens; I get to share this with the parents and the public. I’ve been here at Archgate for a decade, which seems like a long time, but I’m still new when you look at the commitment of the people who are here. In the pattern of the school, I’m just getting comfortable. It is a privilege to be part of this school community.”

To make sure things stay fresh for the students, Archgate creates opportunities for newly emerging Montessori professionals and interns as well. “We couple all of the experience of our teachers with new and exciting energy, and all of that together allows us to provide a high-quality educational foundation to our many students!” says Bernard.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Let Nature Be Your Guide: The Importance of Outdoor Environmental Education

Let Nature Be Your Guide: The Importance of Outdoor Environmental Education

“Nature frees kids’ minds and allows them just to be themselves,” says Geoffrey Bishop. “It has no demands. It’s like a blank canvas. When kids go out and immerse themselves in it, they can create it as their own.”

Bishop works as Executive Director of Nature’s Classroom Institute (NCI), an innovative environmental education program with five sites in Wisconsin, Texas, and California. NCI hosts students of all ages for three- or five-day immersive visits with custom programming in settings including farms, lakes, mountains, forests, and more.

The program grew out of Bishop’s own passion for the natural world. After growing up in the Australian bush and studying horticulture and landscape agriculture in his home country, Bishop spent five years traveling the world, visiting almost 125 countries and seeing how people interacted with a wide variety of landscapes. 

Bishop feels that when someone goes outside and truly connects with nature, there is a calming effect, as in yoga or meditation. In essence, spending time outside is a way to press the “reset” button on a child’s day and ease the burden of any baggage they may be carrying around – a stomach that hurts, an argument with a parent, an interaction with a bully, or any number of other troubling things. After getting time outdoors to center themselves and be active, Bishop has observed kids go back into the classroom with the kind of focus, attention, and enthusiasm they need to tackle academic work.

Another great asset of nature is how it encourages kids to learn about and take calculated, controlled risks, in situations where they might skin a knee or fall in the lake, and learn about their boundaries and interests. “Overprotection of children robs them of the ability to discover for themselves and to understand their own bodies and own connections to the world,” says Bishop. “Accidents happen sometimes, but they are our way of discovering what our limits are. They are learning tools.”

Even something as simple as taking a hike through the woods forces kids to be aware of their surroundings, to notice where they are stepping and what the weather is like and how the air smells. “Nature will kind of hit you in the face if you’re not paying attention,” says Bishop. 

Obviously, teachers who work in schools with gardens, tree-lined playgrounds and nearby parks have an advantage when it comes to accessing outdoor education, but Bishop is adamant that those in any school can find ways to incorporate nature into their curricula. If parks, creeks, or forests are just a short walk away, Bishop suggests taking weekly field trips to natural sites and getting kids to focus on noticing what they see, hear, smell and feel. 

For teachers in completely urban areas, Bishop recommends bringing nature into classrooms by growing a variety of plants, having class pets, and encouraging kids to bring in items from nature that they’ve found outside of school and share them with the rest of the class. “There is no such thing as a place with no nature. It’s not possible,” says Bishop. “The dandelion in the crack in the sidewalk is nature. Nature is everywhere!”

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Shelton School: Montessori for the Learning-Different

The Shelton School: Montessori for the Learning-Different

For students who grapple with learning differences, the Shelton School in Dallas, Texas is the largest private institution in the world. It has nearly 900 students but boasts a teacher-student ratio of just one to six, making clear its dedicated commitment to children’s individuality and distinct learning styles. Among Shelton’s staff members, the Montessori method is especially prized as a way to help students reach their full potential.
            “It is unique and irreplaceable for me,” says Dr. Joyce Pickering, Shelton’s executive director emeritus and current vice president of the American Montessori Society. “Montessori allows me to reach children in a way that helps them be successful, protects their self-concept, and prepares them for the future.” 
            Shelton is well equipped to do just that. Founded in 1976 by Dr. June Ford Shelton along with a small group of parents, the Shelton School had only 26 students when it began. Since then, it has grown by nearly 10 percent each year, and the school now has more than 200 staff members to serve its students.
            Although it has lots in common with other Montessori schools, Shelton faces some unique challenges. “[We] must work intensely to individualize the programs to each child’s needs,” says Dr. Pickering. The school deals exclusively with students who are classified as “learning-different,” meaning that they meet or exceed intelligence levels of other kids but may struggle with challenges including dyslexia, ADD, ADHD, speech difficulties, or language disorders.
            Shelton’s staff is a tight-knit group that relies on one another to emphasize positivity, create a nurturing environment, and place students’ needs first. “The staff works in a very collaborative way to share ideas and strategies to unlock the learning abilities of each child,” notes Dr. Pickering. “The staff also works to highlight each talent that the student has, so that the student and his parents will appreciate the strengths and not just focus on the weaknesses.”
            To help parents and staff pinpoint the nature of learning difficulties and productively address them, Shelton has an on-site Evaluation Center. Staff members at the center assess any students who need attention and produce detailed learning, behavioral, and psychological profiles from which to move forward. The school’s Speech Clinic is also open to any students who struggle with language- and speech-related difficulties or social communication skills.
            Dr. Pickering also champions Shelton’s Outreach Center, which aids teachers and Montessori professionals worldwide in setting up their own elementary and early-childhood resources and institutions for learning-different children. The Outreach Center offers training, structured language courses, and educational presentations throughout the U.S. and in overseas locations including Europe, Canada, Brazil, China, and Australia. “My dream is that Shelton’s endowment will grow to help the school continue to flourish and [enable] Outreach to set up Shelton replications around the U.S. and the world,” says Dr. Pickering.
            One implication of Shelton’s Outreach Center is that more Montessori schools and teachers could benefit from in-depth knowledge and training related to speech, learning, and communication disorders. Dr. Pickering advises heads of schools of administrators who work with the Montessori method to “continue to learn about children who learn differently so that they will have the knowledge they need to help each child in the ways they learn best.”
            In keeping up with that mission, Shelton has employed a new head of school, Suzanne Stell. Stell’s Montessori training began nearly three decades ago in Dallas at Dean Learning Center, where she received instruction from a Montessorian co-worker and then employed it in her own classrooms. Stell agrees that education and training are essential for schools that cater to learning-different students, but she also stresses how important it is to find the right people to put in classrooms. “Well-prepared teachers can take a child at any stage of learning and gently guide the child to reach his potential,” she says. “The right teacher is one who can ‘follow the child’ by providing what he needs, when he needs it, in the way he needs it. Not every teacher will be able to understand and incorporate this concept, no matter the education or training.”
Stell names improving students’ confidence as a top priority as she eases into her role at Shelton. “Many students have lost their self-esteem and love of learning by the time they get to us,” she says. “We must help them by providing a learning environment that they can succeed in. Young children may respond in a matter of weeks, [but] for adolescents who come to use for the first time, confidence-building can take a lot longer.”
            With such a rich history and reputation behind it, the Shelton School may seem limited in how it can continue to improve, but Stell doesn’t see it that way. “Shelton has always been ahead of the mainstream when it comes to educating children with learning differences,” she says. “Obviously, technology will play a big part in educating our students over the next ten years. More important, however, is employing teachers who can fit into our ‘Shelton way.’ Our staff is the most important reason we have seen such success with students in the past, [and] they will continue to be our most significant asset in the future.”

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Feature: Marta Donahoe, 2019 AMS Living Legacy

Marta Donahoe, 2019 AMS Living Legacy

“How do you measure the way in which young people care about each other and support each other?” asks Marta Donahoe.

It sounds like a rhetorical question, but in a world where education is largely measured by standardized test scores, it’s an important topic for Montessori educators. In 2010, Donahoe was faced with this question head-on when the school she started in 1994, Clark Montessori, became a finalist in the nationwide “Race to the Top” Commencement Challenge. Each competing school made a short video showcasing its students and their accomplishments, in an effort to bring then-President Obama to speak at its graduation ceremony. The Clark Montessori students designed, produced and submitted the video themselves, and suddenly, their school was in the national spotlight.

“It really helped validate the work we do that’s more invisible to the rest of the world,” says Donahoe. “In lots of ways, you’re always swimming upstream and moving against popular culture. Our kids aren’t going to a school that has bragging rights like class rank or AP classes. That’s by design, of course, but it takes a kind of strength of character for kids who have choices about where they might go to keep coming to a school where you’re not speaking that same language.”

As the AMS 2019 Living Legacy, Donahoe has a long history of trailblazing in the Montessori community. She began as a Montessori teacher back in 1979. Although she first worked with younger children in a private school, she felt called to work in public schools with older students and more diverse populations. After Cincinnati’s Board of Education approved a proposal for a Montessori middle school in the early 1990s, it came time for someone to spearhead the project.

“I was so beside myself with wanting to do it [that] I didn’t want people to know. It was almost embarrassing,” says Donahoe. With two other teachers, Donahoe worked long hours to start the school. After several years as a junior high, Clark became the first public Montessori high school in the United States. 

“We really had no intention of starting a high school,” says Donahoe. “I told [a few students that] if they really wanted the high school, they had to research. The class was working on a project to choose a local issue they wanted to impact, and the group decided to research what a Montessori high school might look like, and maybe they could take it to the Board of Education. They did! The Board was pretty impressed. Starting a high school was another whole bunch of years of dedication and inspiration and hard work, but it’s been pretty fun.”

Donahoe’s passion for Montessori secondary education is obvious, and after spending years giving workshops all over the world, she came to accept that she had valuable tools to share with others. Through the Feminist Leadership Academy in Cincinnati, she conducted a yearlong project designing what a Montessori secondary education training program for teachers might look like. In 2003, she began the program, called Cincinnati Montessori Secondary Teacher Education Program, or CMStep for short. In its first year, CMStep trained about eight teachers. Last year, it trained 80. 

“People are recognizing that the work isn’t finished when kids are 12,” says Donahoe. “There’s been a growing interest in middle and high school across the country. I think our [program] has grown out of that need, but also because we’re doing really interesting work in terms of giving teachers the tools to be successful.”

Over the past few years, after giving so much of herself to Clark and CMStep, Donahoe has found a happy medium that allows her to stay involved while taking advantage of opportunities to write, teach, and spend time with family. She now acts as a remote consultant for Clark and Director of Professional Development for CMStep, and she has moved to Asheville, North Carolina, where she can spend more time with her two granddaughters. “I’m looking forward to eventually getting bored,” she says with a laugh, “so I could see what might be on the other side of that boredom! But the work in Montessori at the adolescent level is still so pioneering and compelling, I’m not sure I’ll ever get to that point.”