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In 2009, The Community Montessori consisted of 10 students and one instructor inside a house on King Street.
“It was a little tiny house, but it was full of love,” says Nicolle Adair, the preschool’s board president.
The house — about a decade before the preschool moved in — was a crack house, the school’s founder Myke Gemkow says. Gemkow knew the location because he drove a taxi while he was in college. After college, he taught at a men’s prison.
“One commonality was that the majority of these men had lacked access to education,” Gemkow says.
He realized that if educators could give everyone a positive education experience early on, it could change their futures drastically. The Community Montessori hopes their efforts to provide this kind of early education to families of all incomes will narrow the achievement gap in Columbia.
Now, The Community Montessori has its own campus and serves 20 students. The little green preschool sits on Providence Road. Tucked behind it is a garden where students and families spend time.
“When you walk into the classroom, it’s very peaceful, it’s very well ordered,” board member John Wright says. “The kids are busy working away on their own tasks.”
Wright joined the board in 2011 and has a background in early education. He helped start Rollins Reading, which runs another Montessori preschool, at Grant Elementary; he also served in the state legislature and pushed for elementary schools to have preschool programs. Joining Wright, Adair, and Gemkow on the board are CJ Strawn, Benjamin Warner, David Aguayo, Saxon Brown, Bobby Campbell, Lara Landrum, Nick Peckham, Anne Stinson, Astrid Villamil, and Ellen Wilson, the executive director of the school. The board fundraises, recruits, and forms partnerships with community organizations. They also set the strategic direction for the school.
“We have been blessed with really exceptional teachers at The Community Montessori,” Wright says. “Our job is to help support them and help support their leadership.”
This is easy to do with a director like Wilson, Adair says.
Before teaching preschool, Wilson taught remedial reading to middle schoolers, where she also realized that early education is critical to a student’s future success.
“You could not ask for a better director than Ellen,” Adair says. “She’s passionate. I really try to give her frank and direct advice … I try to offer her critical and strategic advice that’s going to grow the school.”
Wilson is a co-teacher in the classroom; she does administrative work for the school, writes grants, helps with community outreach and fundraising, manages the staff, and communicates with parents.
Montessori education, developed by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori, is an educational approach characterized by a child’s independence and natural development.
On a typical day at The Community Montessori, students arrive around 8:30. There are two Montessori work periods. All of the students, ranging from ages 3 to 6, work together.
“Everything in the classroom is called work, which is a form of respect for the child,” Gemkow says.
The work period emphasizes individual curiosity. Wright believes there is a gap in public education in the idea that learning starts at age 5. Due to developments in cognitive neuroscience, he says, educators now know a tremendous amount of learning takes place between ages 3 and 4. The Community Montessori is trying to fill that gap with an uninterrupted, self-guided style.
“My little one is very independent,” Melita Walker, a parent, says.
Walker says because of The Community Montessori, her daughter exceeds the benchmark skills needed for kindergarten.
“They really do a good job of teaching to the whole child,” Walker says.
Walker says her daughter has knowledge not just in curriculum, but socially and environmentally. She’s been exposed to different ideas and cultures.
“I watched her absolutely flourish,” Walker says. “She started out a little timid, and through the nurturing and support of that Montessori staff, I really saw her come into her own.”
In addition to Montessori work periods, there is outdoor time, lunch time, rest time, and a hands-on crafting time.
Lunches are provided daily by Café Berlin, who also partnered with them on a lip-sync competition fundraiser for the school.
The school’s other community partners include Lucky’s Market, the Grant Montessori Preschool, and the Columbia Housing Authority. The preschool is partially funded by Heart of Missouri United Way; many students have scholarships or sliding tuition scales.
Wilson is proud of the community and attendance at family nights, where parents and students can spend time in the classroom and work in the green space.
“I was always impressed that everybody showed up,” Walker says. “All of the parents showed up. The grandparents showed up.”
Wilson hopes the school will grow in capacity and programming. The property the school sits on is large, but the school itself is not. Wilson hopes to build onto the facility or build a separate classroom.
“I think if they could get a larger space, they could serve more students, and again, that Montessori experience that they are offering over there is absolutely top-notch,” Walker says.
Currently, there is a waiting list for the preschool of more than double what Wilson can accommodate.
The Community Montessori is piloting a program where a new mother can intern at the preschool and learn child care skills in exchange for a scholarship for their child to attend the preschool the following year. Wilson hopes to expand this kind of multi-generational programing.
“These young moms are enthusiastic,” Gemkow says. “They are incredibly motivated to provide the best opportunities for their kids.”
So many of their parents are single and under 25, and what’s holding them back from having meaningful incomes and careers is lack of good child care, Gemkow says.
Wilson also hopes they can gain funding for summer school; Gemkow hopes to develop an infant and toddler program, and an elementary program down the line. The school hopes to work with mental health professionals so families can speak with licensed, experienced family counselors.
The goal that remains constant is to close Columbia’s achievement gap. To have a school so economically and racially diverse with such great attendance, Wilson says, is rare.
“Children who live in poverty are some of our most vulnerable citizens,” Gemkow says. With that focus, he hopes The Community Montessori educates and empowers children to be proud of their accomplishments. “In society, we all want to contribute. We all have meaningful work to do.”