Libertas School brings Montessori approach to Frayser

Libertas School of Memphis does its part in the grand scheme of education in Frayser, bringing a unique Montessori approach to the neighborhood.
Children coming home from school with sand in their hair and dirt on their clothes. In this day and age when it’s said children don’t get outside and play anymore, how is this possible?
At Libertas School of Memphis, playing outside in a natural environment happens to be part of the overall education experience students receive at Frayser’s only Montessori school. Yes, the school has a “regular” playground on the north side of the facility. But the playground that has dirt, sand, piles of tree limbs, bridges and other natural outdoor fun that’s located in a shaded courtyard of sorts is where everyone wants to play.
It’s filled with found materials from around the neighborhood. Yes, tree limbs and old tires are eyesores in the neighborhood, but they go into enhancing the experience at Libertas.
“For young children in an area like this they never get to play outside,” said Bob Nardo, Libertas Head of School. “We just drove around the neighborhoods and found tires on the side of the road and pallets and just took them apart and built them into these climbing structures for kids. … It invites kids to get gross motor activity. There is research that if kids don’t get enough opportunities to practice balance or running or stopping they don’t develop. This complements the fine motor work we do in the classroom.”
Libertas is a public charter school in Frayser. It serves children in early childhood through lower elementary where students advance at their own pace, working individually and in small groups. There are two teachers in every classroom.
Libertas received approval in 2014, opening last fall for its first school year. There were 137 students in this school year with a goal of 200 in the 2016-2017 academic year. The enrollment began with students age 3 to 7 with the goal of growing to the sixth grade.
Ninety-six percent of the students are low income or live in priority zones.
“There is a tremendous amount of demand so I think we’ll meet that goal,” Nardo said about the projected growth for next year. “People have moved out of the area but something that isn’t discussed is people opt out of the schools here. Thirty percent of kids zoned for this school opt out. Our goal is to have a private school-quality education so that people will want to stay or come back to their neighborhood school. We also want to get people who would never stop and think about Frayser to say this place has assets.”

The majority of Libertas’ students in the first year were from Frayser with some from nearby Raleigh.
Montessori learning provides the freedom and structure for students to learn on a more personal basis. At Libertas, children have the opportunity to work independently and concentrate on their own development with their own individual work plan. In a classroom there might be 20 different things going on at once. But it’s not chaos; in fact, the children work quietly and efficiently, it seems.
In one corner, a boy and girl sit and read to themselves. In the center of the room another two do a geography project looking at a map.
Libertas’ classrooms are inclusive of everyone; about 25 percent of the student population has disabilities.
“There are kids at the edges of the development spectrum where kids doing the same thing at the same time in one classroom just because they all have the same birthday just doesn’t make sense,” Nardo said. “We’re also trying to develop that discipline freedom in children. We’re very good at structure and order, but how do we help children work independently as well?”
The children typically have work windows when they work on art, music, geography, literature and even the care of plants.
“Our curriculum is primarily about wonder, the spirit of wonder,” Nardo said. “That’s our mission. We give children meaningful work in an environment of love that will help their spirit of wonder and inquiry. I’m not here to warehouse kids or just move them through. Most teachers aren’t.”
When Nardo’s team decided to open a Montessori school in Memphis, he said he heard from many people who wanted it in Midtown. But in some ways that would be too easy. Nardo saw the need in Frayser.
In fact, many of the school’s staff are invested in Frayser as residents, including Nardo.
“Part of our mission in Frayser is this isn’t just a place people pass through,” Nardo said. “This isn’t a dump. It’s our home that we want to take care of for future generations. … I love what we do in our school here but I feel we’re just one little piece in this broad work to uplift Frayser.”

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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