A new Montessori-based school will open in Kirksville this fall.
K-12 school, Prairie Song Academy, came to fruition thanks to the pandemic. Ginger Nolker, principal and guide at Prairie Song, said several families have been homeschooled during the pandemic. As that year came out, there were parts of homeschooling that they loved and wanted to keep, but couldn’t continue to afford.
This propelled them towards Montessori education. The Montessori Method was developed by Dr Maria Montessori and focuses on the independence of each child. A specific learning plan is developed for each student. They will follow this plan and add their own interests to it. The idea is that children naturally want to learn, so let them continue in whatever way works best for them, so that they continue to enjoy learning and working.
As an example of the elementary side, there will be no teacher standing in front of the class. Instead, students will work individually or in groups, and teachers will travel and teach as needed.
“It’s a very good balance of responsibilities and privileges,” said Nolker. “We always have responsibilities to give them in a week. We could say, ‘Here are those five jobs that we want you to do this week.’ So if the students work on it and finish it, they can choose works that interest them, that they just want to explore. But if they don’t do them in a week, the following week, they come back,… (they finish them). Then they lose that privilege of choosing their own schedule completely, but when they then discharge that responsibility, then they can decide in what order they want to discharge their responsibilities.
Nolker said the program is more rigid than it looks.
“Students coming out of Montessori or Montessori-inspired programs tend to have very good project management, time management, and life management skills,” Nolker said. “There is actually a lot of structure. He’s just tucked away in such a way that he’s always relaxed and relaxed. It looks low-key, but it performs well and looks low-key due to the structure behind it.
Prairie Song is a secular school, so there is no religious affiliation, although its in-person classes are conducted at the First Presbyterian Church until they have their own building. Students will divide their time between a classroom and independent work at home.
There are no standardized tests but there are informal assessments with each student. Guides, the term used by the school for teachers, will know where students are based on the work they are doing.
“We don’t care so much about grade levels, we don’t care that everyone in a certain grade level knows exactly the same standards or topics at the same time,” Nolker said. “We have a longer term vision because we have more multi-age classes. So we can take a long-term view and say that we want children to learn these things before they are 12 years old. Then we have all the way to go between six and twelve to guide them through that. They will all receive our most basic curriculum, but they will all do so in a different order, based on their evolving interests. And they will also add to this curriculum with their own interests and explorations. They have time to explore them in depth, find out what their passions are, and then move forward with them.
“The advantages are that we can really meet the student where they are,” Nolker said. “So if a student is really ahead of a subject in terms of quality standards – like the common basic standards for their age – we can meet them where they are, even if they are way beyond that. as those standards say they generally should be. And then vice versa. If they’re behind where these standards say they should be, it doesn’t matter in our agenda. We can just meet them where they are and move forward from there. Individualized, low pressure, high interest learning so students are engaged. This is what parents said they really wanted for their children.
Registrations opened in June and Nolker said there had been a lot of interest. The school anticipates a maximum of 30 students when classes start on August 23. The planned distribution would be 10 secondary students and 20 primary students. Nolker expects there to be a long waiting list, so there are already plans to expand next year. Nolker is one of the four guides who will instruct the students. They are looking for applications for adult volunteers.
Tuition fees work on a sliding scale, depending on household income and the number of people living in the household. There are plans to raise funds to help families who need extra help. The school applied for association status. Nolker said the schooling method is to make sure they’re as inclusive as possible for potential students.
“Our board of directors, we are all really committed to inclusiveness, fairness and accessibility. We absolutely want to avoid becoming an elite institution, ”said Nolker. “We want to have a truly diverse student body in every sense of the word. All of our decisions are always geared towards this.
The school board has five members: Kelsey Aurand de Razo, president; Claire Davis, secretary; Madeline Nash, Treasurer; and Joy Carnes and Peggy Clement, fundraising co-chairs.
Prairie Song will apply for accreditation through the National Association of Independent Schools, but this process cannot begin until the school is operational for three years. The accreditation process will then take a few years.
Nolker previously taught in the Kirksville R-III School District and spent a brief period in a private school. She left R-III to home school her children when she felt her job was taking her longer away from home. With Prairie Song Academy and Northeast Christian High School opening this fall, along with other private schools in the area, Nolker doesn’t see them as “competing.”
“What we say to every family, and I personally say to families when we discuss educational options, is always to find the best environment for your child and for your family,” said Nolker. “Having a variety of options means people are better able to do it. So sometimes we will be the best option for this child and this family, and sometimes not. We’re really happy to say, “Maybe we can’t meet that need, but here’s a better educational environment that maybe can do it.”