Snow fell outside, startling most locals into slow motion, yet Audubon Charter School’s students continued with lesson plans, all carefully mapped out in self-directed notebooks.
Grant, a first grader, worked with a bead frame doing subtraction problems. A few feet away, Juliana, a third-grader, worked with a grammar box. She identified parts of speech in sentences by placing shapes above words: red circles over verbs, blue over adjectives and black triangles over nouns.
Grant and Juliana are different ages, progressing at different levels, but they occupy the same classroom with the same teacher and will do so until Juliana moves to fourth grade to join fifth graders. Merging similar ages and grade levels forms the core of the Montessori method developed in the early 20th Century by Italian educator Maria Montessori. The method acknowledges that same age children are not necessarily at the same stage of development.
At Audubon’s Broadway campus, for example, a teacher and instructional aide guide as many as three grades in one grouped classroom. The method adopts the collaborative atmosphere of the one-room schoolhouse in a creative way. No isolated desks arranged in straight rows of conformity are part of this campus.
Arts, dance and drama are also emphasized. After completing lessons in math and language arts on that snowy day in mid-December, Grant and Juliana’s classmates transformed into cowboy elves for a performance rehearsal.
Traditional schools and Montessori schools share commonalities, but they part ways in the amount of responsibility children carry. Students at Audubon have a “say so” in their learning, according to Latoye Brown, Chief Executive Officer.
“I think that is invaluable,” Brown said. “Who doesn’t feel empowered when they have a say so?”
Audubon got its start in 1981 when a group of teachers received approval from the Orleans Parish School Board to a develop a Montessori program. The school website says it was so popular that some parents camped out for two weeks to get in line for admissions.
In 1990, it also became a French school in cooperation with the French government. After Katrina, it became a charter school governed by the Board of French and Montessori Education, Inc. Rated an “A” school by the state, its popularity continues. Brown says 1,900 applicants are vying for fewer than 200 openings for the coming academic year.
Audubon will open a second K-8 school in Gentilly in fall 2018. The expansion is partly fueled by about $2 million in grants from the Walton Family Foundation, the Charter School Growth Fund and other benefactors. The Charter School Growth Fund provided a $500,000 grant for charter schools led by “people of color.”
Brown climbed to the upper echelons of school administration via an unsatisfying marketing career. At that juncture in life, education wasn’t even an option. “I said it was the one profession I would never, never do,” she stated.
But after two years with Ford Motor Company in Memphis, she returned to New Orleans and became a school secretary. The rest of her story includes substitute teaching, teaching middle school, and obtaining two master’s degrees. A native-born lover of books, extended families and singing hymns, she says she got hooked on education when she fell in love with middle school students’ “funny brand” of sarcasm and childishness. That love sent her down a path of educating her “babies” for life.