New Montessori Elementary charter school given go-ahead to open in Hamilton County

Staff photo by Tim Barber/ In the 700 block of South Hawthorne, the former Highland Park Grammar School sits empty, as it has for decades. The building is slated to be torn down and the site will become the home of the new Montessori Elementary at Highland Park, a public charter school affiliated with Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy. Photo taken Apr. 23, 2020.

A new charter school has been given the go-ahead to open in Chattanooga.

The Hamilton County school board approved the charter application for the new Montessori Elementary at Highland Park with little fanfare Thursday.

The charter school, scheduled to open in August 2021 and eventually house grades pre-K through 5, is partnered with Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy (CGLA), Tennessee's reigning Charter School of the Year. The school is slated to open near CGLA's campus in Highland Park - on the same site as the old Highland Park Grammar School.

Despite the massive disruption to education inflicted by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Elaine Swafford, executive director of CGLA and the new school, said plans for the school are moving steadily along.

"In my mind this is the time to run to the fire, not away from it. We cant stop learning," she told the Times Free Press. "The best teacher and learning is going to need to be in place when we come out of this in the next year or so. ... With that in mind, its time to think about how we best prepare ourselves to get kids back on track."

Just over a decade ago, CGLA opened its doors as the first all-girls public charter school in Hamilton County, and since then four other schools - Chattanooga Charter School of Excellence Upper and Lower schools, Chattanooga Preparatory School, and Ivy Academy - have joined its ranks.

Public charter schools are funded by taxpayer dollars just like traditional public schools, but are typically privately-owned and operated. Only about 1,500 students in Hamilton County currently attend one of the district's four charter schools, compared to about 5,500 in private or parochial schools and 45,300 who attend traditional public schools.

But Swafford has said that opening an elementary school to serve students before they arrive at CGLA has been in the school's strategic plan for years.

Swafford was particularly attracted to a Montessori-style school after experiencing such a school personally and professionally. Currently, only two other such schools, The Montessori School and East Lake Montessori, exist in Hamilton County.

The "Montessori Method of Education," was developed by an Italian physician, Maria Montessori, based on her scientific observations of children beginning in the 1890s. The method touts student-led and independent learning, mixed-age classrooms and specially-trained teachers.

CHARTER SCHOOLS IN HAMILTON COUNTY

— Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, opened in 2009, grades 6-12— Chattanooga Charter of Excellence Upper and Lower schools, opened in 2011, grades K-5 and 6-8— Ivy Academy, opened in 2009, grades 6-12— Chattanooga Preparatory School, opened in 2018, grades 6-12 (currently serving grades 6 and 7)

Swafford believes such a model will benefit Hamilton County students, especially those underserved students in the city's core that fill most of CGLA's seats.

"One thing that Montessori allows you to do is really individualize instruction for every child," she said. "Montessori seems to create a love of learning in children. They get to be creative. It's a matter of them being able to think on their own and wonder and grapple with information."

During the school board's virtual April meeting on Thursday, Chief of Innovation and Choice Jill Levine presented a recommendation to approve the charter request to the board.

Levine and her team conducted an extensive review process of the school's application as prescribed by the state. Not only does the plan for the elementary school meet the basic requirements, but Swafford and her team are well suited to take it on, Levine said.

"Elaine and her team have a strong track record in terms of the work they've done in turning around CGLA," Levine told the Times Free Press. "I believe they know how to run a team and they know how to serve a high-needs community."

Swafford took over leadership of CGLA in 2012, three years after it was founded as the school struggled with student achievement. Since then, the school has been recognized nationally for student achievement.

Swafford was also the founding executive director of CGLA's brother school, Chattanooga Preparatory School, the all-boys charter school founded in 2018. She hopes that students from the elementary school will eventually feed into both schools after fifth grade, but said the school would prepare students regardless of where they might go.

MORE FROM THE SCHOOL BOARD

The Hamilton County school board discussed a variety of plans and proposals at Thursday’s school board meeting, including recommendations for summer learning, the future of Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts (CSLA) and the district’s proposed fiscal year 2021 budget — which the board was slated to vote on Thursday.Check out the Times Free Press online at www.timesfreepress.com for these stories and more.

Levine said there is a need for high-quality options at the elementary level in Chattanooga, and her office under the direction of Superintendent Bryan Johnson's administration was created to support such options.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has been hailed as a supporter of school choice and has launched several initiatives to support charter schools as well as parent choice through an education savings account, or voucher, program. In 2019, legislation was passed that allowed Lee to establish the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission, a nine-member board that changes how the state oversees authorizing new charter schools.

Johnson has also worked to increase options locally through adding seats to existing magnet schools, designating some zoned schools as open enrollment schools and launching the Future Ready Institutes initiative in 2018.

The elementary school charter application was the only new school considered and recommended for approval by the school board this year, but both Ivy Academy and Chattanooga Charter School for Excellence had submitted letters of intent to apply earlier this year.

Ivy hoped to open two small elementary school locations and Chattanooga Charter intended to add a high school to its existing elementary and middle schools, according to district records.

Ivy Academy pulled its application with plans to re-apply next year and Chattanooga Charter never submitted an official application, according to district officials.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at [email protected] or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.