May 18, 2018 Blog, Community

Holding a Space

For the first time since The Montessori School of Englewood (TMSOE) opened five years ago, the school has a permanent space to call home. “Every summer before, we were unpacking boxes,” says Principal Rita Nolan. In the school’s third location, Rita can finally breathe a sigh of relief as she focuses on running her Montessori training center and preparing programming for the fall.

However, it’s more than the comfort of a physical space that Rita appreciates about the school’s new home. The Englewood community is part of the school’s identity and is embedded in its mission. Since the vast majority of students at TMSOE come from the neighborhood, community needs and interests inform the way Rita and her teachers approach education.

Rita wants TMSOE to feel like a neighborhood school. To do this, she recruits teachers and staff who come from the same area as her students. In summer 2017, she started a Montessori training center at the school to encourage more teachers and staff to receive training in the Montessori model. The center allows many of her longtime classroom aides, most of whom live in the neighborhood, to become Montessori-certified teachers. “Making the training available here in the building has made certification accessible to staff,” says Rita. Access to the certification program encourages local educators to remain in the Englewood community.

Rita sees the location of her new building as central to the school’s mission of serving the community. Montessori programs are generally found in wealthier neighborhoods in Chicago. The waitlists at some schools can stretch hundreds of families long. Rita, however, chose to open TMSOE in a lower-income neighborhood, hoping to bring Montessori teachings to students in need of additional social and emotional supports. “If we were right off the highway, if parents didn’t have to drive their little ones all the way through West Englewood and see what poverty looks like, we may have more mixed-income classrooms. We know that has been shown by research to increase test scores. But if we were somewhere else, we wouldn’t be serving the kids we want to serve. The fact that we’re in Englewood has helped preserve our mission for the school.”

Given the school’s location in a neighborhood with high rates of violence, Rita believes that social and emotional learning is just as important as math and reading for her students. Many of TMSOE’s students have experienced significant trauma in their young lives, which can lead to behavioral problems in the classroom.

One skill that TMSOE teaches students is self-control, a central tenet of Montessori education. “I believe that if you do not have self-control,” Rita says, “it does not matter what an adult can make you do. It’s not like we as adults don’t know how to control children. We do, but we’re not with them all of the time. During winter vacation, they’ll be out at the bus stop and have to make choices for themselves. Adults won’t be around. That’s when they’ll need self-control.” TMSOE provides social work services and therapy to students in need, in addition to embedding social and emotional learning throughout all subject areas. With a strong foundation of self-control, students are better able to focus on academics.

The TMSOE building is more than just a place students go to learn reading and writing. Teachers and staff give students time and room to work out behavioral difficulties. Rita would rather a student struggle with his behavior at school where there is a trained support system. A school therapist once said to Rita, “I’ll never forget this school. You hold a space for a child when they need to work things out.”

Finally, Rita has a permanent location in the community the school was designed to serve. She looks forward to holding that space for more students as her school continues to grow.