Public Montessori school to open in August

COUNTING ON IT: Brittany Wager's son Rowan, age 9, attended Asheville Primary School from kindergarten until its closure last year. Wager loved the APS Montessori program and hopes her family will win admission in Mountain City Public Montessori's lottery. Photo by Brittany Wager

When the Asheville City Board of Education voted in December 2021 to close Asheville Primary School, “it was like the floor dropped out from under me,” says Brittany Wager. Her two sons attended the public Montessori school in West Asheville, and she says they benefited enormously from Montessori learning.

The Montessori model is based on a method by Italian educator Maria Montessori whereby students are guided by their own interests and students educate each other. The method emphasizes learning life skills and encourages self-motivation and problem solving. APS was the only public Montessori school in Asheville. (There is a small, private Montessori school, as well as a Montessori home-schooling program.)

“Preschool had been very, very hard” for her son Rowan, Wager says, and an autism diagnosis before kindergarten had made Wager nervous about Rowan’s schooling. But beginning with kindergarten at APS, Rowan had “such an amazing experience that so exceeded my expectations,” she recalls. Through second grade, when APS closed, he was “coming home from school every day saying he loved school, he loved his teachers. … It was everything I’d ever wanted for him.”

The closure of APS in June upset parents and educators and displaced over 100 students who attended kindergarten through fourth grade. School families and teachers immediately began to meet and research “a new iteration” of the school, says Sophie Mullinax, whose daughter attended APS.

Some advocated fighting to reopen APS. Others wanted to open a second Montessori private school, while others found it important that APS had been public. “It became evident that the charter school route would be the closest thing to reopening Asheville Primary and that it would bring public Montessori back to WNC,” Mullinax says.

And from the heartbreak of the APS closure, a happy ending is evolving. Supporters labored throughout 2022 on an application for a new Montessori charter school within Asheville City Schools. Following an approval from the state, the new school, called Mountain City Public Montessori, is projected to open for kindergarten through sixth grade in August.

Hard work

Including MCPM, Asheville has six charter schools, each serving different grade levels.

North Carolina funds charter schools with local and state tax dollars, according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. Charters are operated by an independent board of directors and are not subject to some regulations, like following the curricula within the N.C. Standard Course of Study, which is required at district schools. (Charter schools in North Carolina are governed by state statute, state Education Board policy and a charter agreement.)

New charter school proposals must be submitted to the N.C. State Board of Education. A committee of about 18 people on behalf of MCPM completed the 100-plus-page application over several months with the assistance of consultants from Leaders Building Leaders, a charter support organization. The application requires a vision statement and goals for the school, details about the major instructional method, assessment strategies and general policies on transportation, lunch and discipline.

The school’s nonprofit board submitted the application by the state’s April deadline. The NCDPI’s Charter School Advisory Board interviewed the MCMU board in September and gave its unanimous approval. NCDPI gave its final approval in December.

MCPM’s application requested an accelerated opening for the 2023-24 school year so students don’t have continued disruptions in their Montessori education, says Mullinax.

The school’s name listed on its application is Two Rivers Public Montessori; the nonprofit changed its name to Mountain City because there is already a public charter school in Boone called Two Rivers.

Jim Causby, interim superintendent for Asheville City Schools, and Dillon Huffman, spokesperson for ACS, both declined to comment on the new charter school in an email.

Location, location, location

Finding a suitable space for the school was a challenge, Mullinax says. For example, kids younger than age 6 must be in a ground-floor classroom with its own exit. The APS building can no longer be used as an instructional facility due to environmental issues (including lead paint, Causby has confirmed in a previous interview with Xpress). MCPM supporters hoped to find a location downtown or in West Asheville accessible via Asheville Rides Transit.

The location committee toured seven-10 church facilities. “It’s known among the small, independent school community that churches can often be great partners in terms of the school location,” Mullinax says. Central United Methodist Church, 27 Church St., came out on top. CUMC operated a private preschool in its education wing for 65 years before closing in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mullinax says the church was ideal both for being within walking distance to downtown and because “they were a very excited and willing partner to host us,” Mullinax says.

SIGN OF THE TIMES: A sign announcing the opening of Mountain City Public Montessori and Little Grove Preschool was posted on the door at Central United Methodist Church on Jan. 7. Both schools will use the church’s education wing. Photo by Brittany Wager

The space features three floors with three-four classrooms per floor, a kitchen, multipurpose space, stairs and elevators. Mullinax says the school wing needs “minor retrofits” to meet fire safety regulations, including installation of exit signage, horn and strobe devices in all classrooms and new smoke detectors. A budget summary from Beverly-Grant, a construction management firm in Asheville, estimates over $76,000 in upgrades. MCPM’s application predicts the receipt of a Certificate of Occupancy for Educational Purposes during 2023.

Also according to the application, CUMC will waive the school’s rent during its first year and begin collecting again in August 2024. The rent amount is still being negotiated with the church.

Until opening day

In the eight months until MCPM opens, there’s much work to be done. Mullinax, who is on its policy and board development committee, says her group must finalize 49 detailed policies for NCDPI by May. Work also includes writing handbooks for students, parents and staff, and hiring teachers and staff.

“We have to buy all of our classroom materials, our school bus, we have to pay teachers, we have to paint walls — all of that kind of stuff before we get any money,” Wager explains.

In October, the NCDPI will provide funding for the school through state and local taxes. Until then, it will rely on fundraising. Wager explains that many charter schools are operated by charter management companies, which provide startup costs when starting a new school.

“How do you [start a school] as a grassroots parent- and teacher-driven group that doesn’t have a huge amount of corporate, financial backing?” Wager asks. “The system is almost set up in a way to encourage those big charter organizations and discourage truly community-driven schools.”

The school is fundraising, and Mullinax says it raised $10,000 on Giving Tuesday in November. However, Wager estimates the school will need $300,000 to $500,000 total to start — a range suggested by other groups that have opened a charter school. These startup costs are not reimbursed, says Mullinax.

‘Validating’ work

Enrollment opened Jan. 1 and runs through March 31; a recent open house was well attended. Based on the popularity of enrollment in its first month, Mullinax anticipates all grades will go into a weighted lottery through an online service called Lotterease. “Families who meet income guidelines for free and reduced [price] lunch will receive more weight in the lottery, as well as racial minorities, in order to comply with the federal desegregation order,” Mullinax explains.

MCPM plans to admit a minimum of 106 students in kindergarten through grade six. As per the Montessori method, each class will combine two or three grades with a range of student ages — a “lower school” of kindergarten through second grade and an “upper school” of third through sixth grade. A seventh grade will open in 2024, followed by an eighth grade the next year. At full capacity, it will admit 200 students.

MCPM will have two co-directors — one focused on curriculum and one focused on operations and finances — instead of a principal. That model is used by Francine Delany New School for Children, an Asheville charter school serving as MCPM’s mentor, explains Mullinax. “We heard from teachers that … they very much would like this model,” she says.

The space also will include a half-day preschool program called Little Grove Preschool, which will operate separately from MCPM but also will use the Montessori method.

Wager sees the work that has gone into opening the school as “responding to the community — this isn’t just something that we wanted for our kids; it’s something we realized that the community was really wanting,” she says.

“It’s been really validating,” Wager adds. “It’s been exciting to see that that community interest is very much still there and still alive.”


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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One thought on “Public Montessori school to open in August


    Congratulations to those creating this school! And gratitude to the church and others who are supportive of its creation. As one of the founders of Francine Delany New School for Children, I know well, the dedication, perseverance and just plain hard work it takes to bring a project like this to fruition. May it be successful and may your entire school community thrive. Best wishes!

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