Vineyard Montessori School adds middle school, plans to expand

The only private school on the Island is growing, and students are happy about it.

Elementary 1 teacher Nora Dyke leads a class on the solar system with students, from left, Evie Moffatt, Emery Fuller, Benjamin Fuller, and Declan Diriwatcher. —Stacey Rupolo

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Main Street in Vineyard Haven, the Island’s only private school, Vineyard Montessori School, is expanding its reach.

The school houses 57 preschool through sixth grade students in multiage classrooms, but with the start of the next school year, the school will extend through eighth grade, moving students from fourth to eighth grade to newly renovated buildings at the Camp Jabberwocky site in Vineyard Haven.

Deborah Jernegan, director of Vineyard Montessori School, invited The Times to the school to meet with students, a parent, and teachers to discuss the expansion of the school and the qualities that make the school unique.

Marysol Jurszyk, left, and Danny Carreno concentrate on an assignment. —Stacey Rupolo

The middle school program will begin with three students, and Ms. Jernegan anticipates that the program will grow, with an enrollment capacity of 12 students. In many ways, the expansion can be attributed to sixth grade students Tomas Carreno and Matthew Coggins, who didn’t want to leave the school.

“It feels pretty good that I want to stay,” Matthew told The Times. They said that the freedom they have to chose what they want to work on and how they move around the classroom makes them excited about learning — so much so that they’re already talking about preparing for homework in college.

“We also have a voice in here,” Tomas said.

The school, with a tuition of about $10,000 to $13,000 a year, depending on the student’s grade, opened in 1974 at Arrowhead Farm in West Tisbury, but moved to its current site in Vineyard Haven shortly after.

Recently the school purchased three additional lots around its current location, 286 Main St., totaling about one acre. The plan, according to the school website, calls for both new and upgraded facilities for 90 students from preschool to eighth grade, funded by a capital campaign which has not yet begun. Because the school is in the preliminary phase of the project, they do not yet know the total cost, Ms. Jernegan said. The anticipated completion date is 2022.

The hallmarks of the school are its project-based learning, multiage setting, and the freedom students have to move throughout the classroom — a more hands-on and independent style of learning, Ty Johnston, a lead primary teacher, told The Times.

“Montessori is known for its use of tactile materials, and the child learns through materials,” she said.

Montessori students are able to move freely throughout the classroom. —Stacey Rupolo

Hand and eye movement connect with the brain in a way that helps children retain information, Ms. Johnston and her colleague, Irene Wendt, one of the elementary teachers at the school, explained. Maps, globes, and atlases are readily available, for example. Materials for math, like beads, help students learn basic skills for addition or multiplication to more advanced concepts like geometry.

And although there are tables and chairs in the classroom, students are not confined to desks, and are free to move around the classroom in a way that is respectful to the students and teachers around them.

“We ask the child to be self-controlled and self-disciplined in being able to handle it,” Ms. Johnston said.

“Each child learns at their own level,” Ms. Jernegan said of the individualized style of learning. And although the school does not do standardized testing like Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), students are not free from assessment, she said.

The student learns a concept, works on it independently, and when he is prepared, teaches it back to the teacher, who then evaluates the student. “So the assessment piece is really strong, but it’s all from yourself, your independent self, and working in those areas in order to achieve or master a lesson,” Ms. Jernegan said.

Declan Diriwatcher colors in a paper model of Jupiter. —Stacey Rupolo

Matthew and Tomas spoke about literary circles at their school, where they discuss different aspects of a book, its themes, and place it within its historical context. They’ve read stories on ancient Greece, the Lewis and Clark expedition, and slavery in the United States.

“Some of it is pretty serious, so we ask ourselves, ‘Why did the author put that in the book?’” Tomas said.

They talked about Model United Nations, where students from fourth to sixth grade travel to New York City for a week to meet with Montessori students from all over the world, culminating at the U.N. headquarters. They represent various countries — Matthew studied Tunisia and Tomas studied Austria — presenting current issues the countries face and drafting resolutions that tackle those issues.

“There are a lot of people with a lot of ideas,” Matthew said of his experience.

Montessori schools teach their students to think globally, Ms. Jernegan said. “As opposed to neighborhood and out, it’s global and in,” she explained.

Emily Coggins, Matthew’s mother, spoke proudly of her son’s experience at the Montessori School.

“The world is out there,” she said. “They know it.”

Ms. Coggins has three children at the school, and she says that the Montessori style of learning motivates her children to be both industrious and self-reliant, and gives them a sense of belonging. Her children look forward to going to school, and when they come home, they are still eager to learn, turning their home into a museum exhibit after they worked with the Martha’s Vineyard Museum at school.

“I can’t think of a better gift to give a child than the love of learning,” Ms. Coggins said.