Over the past few years, BES has expanded our support for leaders founding schools with models that reflect their communities’ values and respond to their unique needs.
One such leader is 2021 Fellow Sarah Harvey, an Atlanta-based changemaker and first-generation immigrant from Ghana. Sarah is taking part in the BES Fellowship to found and lead Sankofa Montessori, a proposed K-6 school in Atlanta, GA. This marks the first time that a BES Fellow has proposed a school based on the Montessori model.
We held a virtual sit-down with Sarah to find out more about her school and what makes it different from other public education options in Atlanta.
What is Sankofa Montessori?
If approved, Sankofa Montessori will be the only K-6 tuition-free, public Montessori elementary school available to students in the Metro Atlanta area. All of the other K-6 full Montessori schools in the area are private, and the nearest Montessori charter school is several hours away in Savannah.
Our school understands that each child is one of a kind; therefore, we will personalize the learning experience to meet their specific needs. Children will be in a learning environment where their identity is affirmed, learning is joyful and academically rigorous, and children take ownership over their own learning. We know that caregivers are their child’s first teacher, so we will consistently invite them to be a part of the fabric of their child’s learning experience in a way that works for them. For example, parents might work on a community garden or participate in a class parent program.
What are the biggest themes that have come out of your conversations with families and community members, and how have these shaped the design of the school?
I originally envisioned a school model focused on STEAM with elements of the Montessori model, such as freedom of movement and a child-sized setup in the classroom. My own daughter attends a Montessori school, so I understood the benefits of this model.
As I began engaging with families, there was a common theme that emerged. They already had access to STEAM-based public school options; however, as I explained elements of Montessori schools, families said that this type of public school did not exist for them. Families wanted a tuition-free full Montessori school available to their children, as many could not afford to send them to private schools in the area. A nearby district does offer two public schools with Montessori programs, but families must be zoned for that district to attend that program. Therefore, I knew I had to pivot from my initial vision because this option did not exist for all parents.
How do you hope your students and staff will describe their experiences at your school?
Nearly every family expressed wanting their child to feel “excitement” and “a spark” when it comes to learning. I want our students to go home and tell their caregiver about their day and how they felt excited, curious, and cared for. I also want them to feel academically challenged. When they go home, they should say that they tried hard and “grew their brains.”
It’s also important to me that our students feel respected. One of the hallmarks of the Montessori method is “following the child.” If a child says, “I don’t want to do math right now,” we listen to them. Students get options and practice independence over what to engage with in the classroom.
We anticipate having very few certified Montessori teachers in our building on Day One. There is a teacher shortage, especially for those certified in Montessori. We will hire educators who already believe that a child should be respected and should be given independence and choice, and we plan to provide financial support towards the Montessori training that our teachers need.
Montessori teachers are trained to cover three grade levels. This is a lot, so our teachers must be supported. I want my teachers to say, “I know I can get whatever I need to be successful.”
How would you describe your school design and curriculum?
This type of school model brings a lot of freedom for the child. This was attractive to me as a parent. When I thought of the educational experience I wanted my daughter to have, I pictured an environment where her body was not controlled by adults and she felt a sense of autonomy and respect.
Child development research shows that children know so much. I wanted my daughter to be in a space where she felt like she mattered. To me, the Montessori method does that, because what is better than feeling like an individual with choices? How incredible is it to be in the world as a Black girl with that foundation? What could this mean when she becomes an adult? When you think about who typically has access to Montessori schools and who doesn’t, it was a no brainer for me.
In terms of design elements, we are using the Montessori curriculum, which is separated into subjects for PreK3-K, grades 1-3, and grades 4-6. Elements of the Montessori curriculum include practical life and sensorial skills for children as young as three, cultural studies, language, science, social studies, and more.
This work is deeply personal but can also be incredibly challenging. What keeps you going during this time?
Spending time with my family keeps me going. We set aside 5:00-7:30pm as sacred family time. We cook dinner, which is a stress reliever for me, and hang out together. It re-energizes me for the work of designing Sankofa Montessori.
I also love going on walks. I try to walk between 12:00-1:00pm, no matter what is “on fire,” so that I can recharge my batteries.
What have you been most proud of in the school founding process?
We’ve been able to build relationships with people who have already been doing the work of increasing access to Montessori all over the country. I want to especially highlight two organizations in Georgia that have been so very supportive not just of me but of families in our community. I’ve been thankful for the work of organizations like Montessori Partnership for Georgia, whose leader is committed to this work for children of color in low-income communities, and Atlanta Thrive, a parent advocacy organization that shares information about high-quality educational options with families. They’ve been great about getting out the word about Sankofa Montessori and educating families about this model.
Learn more about Sarah Harvey and Sankofa Montessori’s model on their website.