Written by Sherry Lucas | Photographed by Joe Ellis

McWillie Elementary Principal Sara Harper pops into a pre-school classroom and is nearly hobbled by a knee-high hug. The pair of giddy 3-year-olds tell her all about the “hotel” they’re building, and her encouragement makes their grins grow.

McWillie Elementary, the only public Montessori school in the state, starts with students at age 3. “We have two additional years that everybody else doesn’t have, that we can work with our students and build and start early,” Harper says.

About 75 percent of McWillie’s 447 students are in the Montessori program. McWillie also has traditional kindergarteners from nearby Boyd Elementary’s overflow, who return to Boyd for first grade.

Montessori’s multiage classrooms also set McWillie apart. Children have the same teacher for three years – three teachers total through age 12 (6th-grade level). Younger kids look up to the older ones, who help them learn. That builds a family community in the school.

“It boils down to a learning community, and it’s really an extension of the home,” Harper says. Natural lighting, plants, wooden furniture and earth tones enhance that. “Everything that we teach, especially in ages 3 to 6 and 6 to 9, is with hands-on, concrete materials” to help students understand the math and language standards and make abstract concepts clearer. “We use our Montessori curriculum to teach the state standards.

“My favorite thing about it is, the work is so engaging that the students love being here. They love being in the classroom and they love learning.”

About 100 Jackson students apply each year for McWillie; siblings of students in the program are looked at first in the process. An observation, rubric score and number of available slots are considered.

McWillie school, completed in 2001, was built to host the Montessori program, with common “family areas” or pods with a full kitchen, where different classes can come together for activities and team-building. Each classroom has a bathroom and a sink; the program teaches students to be independent. As well as a door to the hallway, each classroom has a door to the outdoor garden area. “That’s kind of like our backyard … it’s an extension of the classroom.”

In a classroom for ages 3 to 6, where most are engrossed in individual tasks, the teacher leads a trio of youngsters in a hands-on lesson in shapes. One little girl sits off to the side, not part of the lesson but intrigued nonetheless. “A lot of times, we let them watch,” Harper says; the program builds on that natural curiosity.

“One of the things I really love about the school and its approach – the general Montessori philosophy – is that the kids are … not just encouraged, but expected to be independent, to be self-sufficient, and be leaders to each other,” says Julia Weems, whose children (Jake, 8, and Ella, 5) attend McWillie, and who serves as president of its “incredibly active” PTA. Older children are expected to set an example and help younger ones progress. It’s a role even kindergartener Ella looked forward to. “She takes that very seriously – at 5 years old.”