Beyond the shops and restaurants on Main Street in Vineyard Haven is the Vineyard Montessori School, where classrooms feel less like rote lecture halls and more like research libraries, where students are quietly and diligently working on projects and assignments, often with their peers.
Established in 1975, the small private school, now serving prekindergarten through eighth grade, works as an alternative education option for elementary and middle school students. Learning is centered on the education philosophy of Maria Montessori, which focuses on children being self-motivated, creative, and independent thinkers.
Currently the school teaches 56 students, and school leaders hope for that number to grow. The preschool through elementary classrooms are held at the school’s main campus on Main Street, while fourth through eighth grade are held at a satellite campus.
The school had previously owned only the Main Street building, but the recent purchase of three plots of land surrounding the school will allow for expansion. While the two buildings are working well for the school, Deborah Jernegan, the head of the school, is excited for the expansion.
“We only have three classrooms in this building, and last year we had a first through sixth grade and it was full,” Jernegan said. “We have the satellite campus; our hope is to be together again.”
Last year all of the grades were under one roof and separated by age levels, but each year more grades have been added, driving the need this year to have a satellite campus, Jernegan said. “Really the parents and the children in those older years have been driving the school into more years, because they really feel like it’s a natural way to learn and it’s progressive,” she said.
The school purchased the land in March 2017, and hopes to start building within the next three to five years. Potential ideas for the new structures are a community space where students can be together for schoolwide activities, a gymnasium with a theater for students to play in and put on shows, and additional classrooms.
At the main campus, the large elementary classrooms had students doing all kinds of activities including painting, decimal counting with blocks, and picture-definition matching. After a morning meeting, students were encouraged to choose what they want to do by picking a tool off the shelf and doing that activity for a few hours. “The children should be able to work and explore in the hours that they need,” Jernegan said. “Learning is play and work.”
Five-year-old Hannah Delgado, a student in the kindergarten class, lives in Falmouth and takes the ferry twice a day to get to and from school. “I get here on Monday, and Tuesday, and Wednesday, and Thursday, and Friday. But I don’t go on Saturday and Sunday,” she said while enjoying a pretzel snack.
The satellite campus has two classrooms, one for fourth through sixth grade, and another for seventh and eighth grade. The building is used by Camp Jabberwocky in the summer. “This is a great space because [Camp Jabberwocky doesn’t] use it in the winter,” Jernegan said.
Jernegan wants the school to fit well into the neighborhood and community. Her goal is to have 12 to 15 students per classroom. “We’d love to be toddler through eighth grade, and that’s our strategic plan,” she said.
At the satellite campus, several students were working diligently on assignments ranging from South American countries and capitals to the human vestibular system.
All the students in the fourth through sixth grade class are participating in the Montessori Model United Nations in New York City, which has them working together to solve mock world problems with students from other Montessori schools around the world. “Every one of them chose to do it this year. It’s not mandatory,” Irene Wendt, the Elementary II teacher, said.
Next door to the fourth through sixth grade classroom is the seventh and eighth grade classroom. Matthew Coggins is the only seventh grader at the school, but works with the sixth graders on some some subjects, such as math and Spanish. He has been a Montessori student for the past 10 years.
“We’re doing math and pre-algebra. And that’s good,” he said with a laugh.
Matthew has participated in the Model U.N. before, making lots of friends from around the country and the world: “Two years ago I made a friend with someone from Australia, and we stay in contact. I have a bunch of friends from all over the U.S.”
This year Matthew is doing Model U.N. again, and his country is Uruguay. “That’s pretty nice because their economy is really good,” he said. Matthew’s Model U.N. problem will be aimed at helping Somalia. To prepare for Model U.N., Matthew has to research his country, write a paper, write a speech, and come up with solutions to the problem presented to him.
With more space and future buildings to be constructed, things are looking up for the school that wants to emphasize creative and independent learning. Jernegan reiterated her school’s message: “Part of Montessori’s philosophy from when you’re very little to when you’re Matthew’s age is taking care of your community and getting outside into nature.”