Two new Montessori schools to open in Chattanooga area next month

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / The Montessori School at Highland Park opens this fall and was rebuilt in the last year on the site of the former Highland Park Grammar School on South Hawthorne Street.

Two Montessori schools, Montessori Elementary at Highland Park and Scenic City Montessori, will open their doors to elementary and secondary students in the Chattanooga area this fall.

Montessori Elementary at Highland Park will be the third charter school on the Highland Park campus, following the all-girls Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy and all-boys Chattanooga Preparatory School. It will be co-educational, with students feeding into CGLA, Chattanooga Prep and other schools.

Elaine Swafford, CEO of CGLA and Montessori Elementary at Highland Park, said an elementary school was part of the strategic plan for 2014-20.

"It was in that plan because kids come into sixth grade two or three grade levels behind, and we wanted to be able to help rectify that and the only way to do that was to take underserved kids, disadvantaged kids who were at a disadvantage," Swafford said. "That's why we opened the school, to serve those who wouldn't have the opportunity otherwise to get this type of education."

This year, about 215 students in grades pre-K-2 and fifth grade will enter the school, building a third and fourth grade class in the following years.

The school will welcome underserved students who may not typically have access to Montessori education. Stacy Lightfoot, a CGLA board member and vice chancellor for diversity and engagement at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said Montessori Elementary at Highland Park will provide families a seamless K-12 pathway in the same community.

"When you think of a Montessori education, you don't always think about that concept and philosophy of education reaching families who are Black and brown, and so what this represents for me is an opportunity for people in the community to access something that is exciting, that is worthwhile, that will reach students from diverse backgrounds," she said.

Built on the site of the former Highland Park Grammar School, the elementary school also has historic roots that will be incorporated into the new building.

"We kept the old cornerstone, we put it back up, and then in building we built a wooden staircase going up to the second floor, like it used to be," Swafford said "It's not the exact replica, of course, but we wanted to make sure that we brought some of the memories back when people come in."

Montessori education incorporates student-led learning in multi-age classrooms, according to the American Montessori Society. The education style is named for Dr. Maria Montessori, a physician who created the method in the early 1900s and focuses on developing children's curiosity and critical thinking from a young age.

"Maria Montessori from the very beginning believed that was the way to go, she did a lot of research on children's learning in general, even children who have disabilities, how this is a far better way to work with learners than the front-loading of basic knowledge, and planning to get them excited and loving learning in the later years," said Edna Varner, senior advisor of reading and learning at Public Education Foundation and a founding member of the Montessori Elementary at Highland Park board.

Typically seen in elementary schools, Montessori education will continue into middle and high school grades at Scenic City Montessori in Hixson.

Anisa Lowrey, one of the cofounders of Scenic City Montessori, said differences in the school compared to a traditional middle or high school include multi-age classrooms, different seating and more personal choice.

"What we say in Montessori, we say 'choice within limits' and so if we're studying, for example, exponents, then we're going to learn about exponents, we're going to do some hands-on activity that will explain exponents and then there will be some choice in a project where you can demonstrate your mastery of the concepts," Lowrey said.

The private school will start with grades 6-9 this year and work up to twelfth grade, with fewer than 30 students total. The school is now accepting applications on its website.

Lowrey said one reason she and head of school Mercedes Thrush cofounded the school was to provide an individualized educational option that suited both her daughters, who are very different from each other.

"It is a curriculum that teaches self motivation and self responsibility, and also it is a curriculum that is inclusive and accepting people as they are, and they really develop tight-knit bonds with their classmates and with their teachers, and so it has a very different feel to it than a traditional education."

Lowrey, who previously worked as a high school teacher in the Hamilton County Schools system, said her goal for Scenic City Montessori's first year is to let people know the project-based learning option is available.

"I think there have been a lot of people that have expressed interest in it over the years, different people that I've worked with who were interested, and a lot of people are interested in project-based learning and an inquiry-based learning approach," Lowrey said. "We hope to develop a reputation as the best small secondary school in Chattanooga."

The first day of school is Aug. 5 at Montessori Elementary at Highland Park and Aug. 16 at Scenic City Montessori.

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at or 423-757-6592.