by Tom Ott
CMSD NEWS BUREAU
Tremont Montessori Principal Heather Grant decided several years ago that the school had to live up to its billing. If not, she would recommend that Cleveland Metropolitan School District leaders drop Montessori from the name or maybe even shut down the building.
The school was innovative before innovation turned into a hot topic in the District, but over the years Montessori had become a label with little meaning. Many teachers weren’t certified in the method, and Grant was blunt: The school had to be “authentic.”
“I told them in some very real moments, the name may be Tremont Montessori, but I need to see, feel and touch Montessori when I’m in here,” Grant said. “This school has to be different from any other CMSD school.”
A committed faculty started moving to earn their Montessori credentials, but The Cleveland Plan for reforming the city’s schools and the flexibility provided by a new teachers union contract removed all doubt. Teachers have to get the training, Grant said, or they can’t work at the school.
All but five of 22 teachers are now Montessori trained, a process that can take 18 months, and Grant thinks full compliance is within reach. The principal practiced what she preached, taking courses, reading books in the method and visiting other public schools that balance the alternative style of education with meeting state standards.
Carrie Schneider, a third-grade teacher who has been with the District for 13 years, saw Montessori as a port in a storm. After riding out the CMSD cycles of layoffs followed by recalls, Montessori training offered a chance for a degree of security.
But she said she was also “100 percent” for plunging into the Montessori approach, which calls for students to follow individual work plans that meet their needs. The teacher monitors progress and supplies instruction as needed.
“Behavior problems are minimal,” said Schneider, who will complete her Montessori studies in May. “There isn’t any downtime. They always have something to do.”
The school also develops a sense of community by mingling grades in a room and emphasizing the responsibility of older children to lead their younger peers. Middle-school students provide 30 hours of service in the school each semester, for example, by reading to younger children.
Tremont Montessori teaches Spanish in all grades, and eighth-graders can take that language, as well as algebra and physical sciences, for high school credit. The school also has a band and orchestra, provides instruction in piano keyboarding and, with the help of the Cleveland Music Settlement and Cleveland Foundation, offers violin lessons after school.
The 2012-13 state report cards, produced in a new format, did not give schools a single overall grade, but Tremont Montessori received an A in “value-added,” a measurement of whether students in the fourth through eighth grades made a year’s worth of progress in reading and math. In previous years, the school got high marks of excellent and effective.
The school, housed in a building that will turn 100 years old in 2017, has about 600 students. A reflection of the thriving West Side neighborhood, the enrollment includes children from a range of economic backgrounds.
Tremont Montessori enjoys a close bond with the surrounding community, which was evident in 2010 when District leaders proposed closing the school. A large crowd, including many people who had no children enrolled at the school, turned out at a public meeting to express their displeasure.
The Friends of Tremont School formed to help with fundraising and planning. The group encouraged the push for a genuine Montessori school and has paid for teacher training, said Cory Riordan, executive director of the nonprofit Tremont West Development Corp. Tremont West serves as fiscal agent for the Friends group.
Riordan said supporters want to market the school so it can compete with other educational options available to families. Grant welcomes the attention.
“We have been one of Cleveland’s best-kept secrets, which is not what we want,” she said. “We want to bring students back to CMSD.”