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Montessori High Cincinnati school pioneers 'real world' learning

Editor's Note: Local supporters of Montessori education have expressed an interest in having a Montessori high school in Buffalo someday. Here's a look at the first such high school in the country, Clark Montessori Junior and Senior High School in Cincinnati.

When people walk into Clark Montessori High School for the first time, they're often surprised to see students sitting in small groups on the floor, classrooms with tables rather than desks, and teachers who sit at an equal level with the students. Vibrant Caribbean music can be heard coming from steel drums in the band room.

At Clark, students with a wide range of ethnicities and economic situations work together on lessons and enjoy spending their free time together at lunch. With such a unique atmosphere, many people are surprised to learn that Clark Montessori is a citywide magnet school in the Cincinnati Public School system.

Clark Montessori Junior High and High School opened its doors in 1994. At that time Cincinnati had four high-achieving Montessori public elementary schools. "Clark Montessori became the first public Montessori high school in the country and was created because so many kids and families wanted to continue Montessori education [after elementary school]," said Marta Donahoe, founder and program director of Clark.
Senior Alex Adams, who attended private school in ninth grade before coming to Clark, said: "At Clark it's more about the people because we do things in groups and do not separate into classes. We form greater bonds not only with individuals but between grades."

One way Clark builds community is through fall camping. Groups of seniors and sophomores, and groups of juniors and freshmen stay at various campsites for two nights. They set up tents, cook meals, build a fire, and do team-building activities. "I enjoy roasting marshmallows, playing capture the flag, and just roughing it with my classmates to get to know each other," said senior Sam McCarthy.

To graduate, students must perform 200 hours of community service, complete four years of honors studies in core courses (English, social studies, math and science); complete a yearlong research project senior year and eight two-week immersion courses, called Intersessions. Clark students must also pass Ohio's version of New York Regents exams, in reading, writing, math, science and social studies.

"What makes the work unique [at Clark] are the ways in which we continually connect studies to the real world and how it works," said Donahoe. "How we help students understand responsibility to the larger community."

"I like Clark's freedom, its laid-back nature, and its peacefulness," said senior Kiara Posey. Senior Julia Lundrigan said: "Clark has created an environment that makes everyone feel welcome and included."

Clark's Intersessions fulfill Maria Montessori's philosophy that adolescents need hands-on, real-world experiences to truly understand the world. In the fall, freshmen participate in Freshmen Intersession, where they learn study skills and discuss their hopes and fears about the next four years. Fall intersession for sophomores is Community Service; student groups volunteer at soup kitchens, community gardens and health clinics. They are asked to keep journals and later discuss their experiences. Juniors begin preparing for the SAT and visit college campuses to begin their college search. Seniors set up job-shadowing experiences to learn about different careers.
For spring intersession, students choose from courses that range from studying biology in Costa Rica to planning a school Steel Drum Concert. Some may hike the Appalachian Trail. Some spend time at Clark reflecting and meditating, while others learn about different cultures by traveling to France or Morocco. A scholarship fund helps needy students pay for intersessions.
"My favorite thing about this school is the intersessions because you can study something you really like," said Kiara. She recently enjoyed becoming a "cowgirl" in North Carolina. "Intersessions allow you to experience the world," said senior Sam McCarthy. "No matter what you do, you get really involved in it." He has fond memories of an intersession in New York City where he studied diversity. This year, he studied biology in the Costa Rican rain forests, where he ziplined through the trees, body-surfed on the beach, and wrote field notes about animals he observed.
At Clark, every eighth-grader travels to Andros Island in the Bahamas for 10 days to study marine biology. They spend weeks preparing, learning about the parts of a fish, learning how to tie sailing knots, and practicing snorkeling at a swimming pool. In the Bahamas, they spend half the time living on sailboats, and half at the ForFar field station. Students snorkel in the Caribbean, learn about Bahamian culture and explore tide pools and blue holes. "I really had to be interdependent with my classmates because we needed to take care of each other, since our parents weren't there," remembered senior Max Kravitz.
College admissions counselors are often impressed by students' diverse experiences and service work. Alicia Kravitz, a junior in the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, said Clark helped prepare her for college: "I already had experiences working in groups to complete a task in synergy. I also knew how to organize a large project into multiple manageable tasks." Sam McCoucha, a freshman at Shawnee State University, said: "When I went to college I thought it was going to be really hard. But since Clark set a high bar for academic standards, I am now getting good grades in my college courses."
Donahoe said Clark students are successful because "we [Clark faculty] work so hard to make sure students pass state exams, graduate on time, but the most important thing I think is when students leave, they're more likely to make important contributions to society because of the attention we have placed in school on the importance of compassion and being true to yourself. ...I think what strikes me when I come into the building is that I am in a place where people want to be and are happy."
Clark senior Claire McCarthy will attend Hiram College.

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