The hallways at Emerson Elementary School are clear. The walls haven’t yet seen the coming thousands of touches by children’s hands.

But a week before the school reopens at 910 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. as the first public Montessori school in Oklahoma, work continues until school starts.

Stephanie Jones’ prekindergarten and kindergarten multi-age classroom shows signs of the controlled chaos that will come with the school year. Jones spent Tuesday and the days before putting the room together, even though teachers weren’t required to report until Thursday.

The first day of classes is next Wednesday, and for Montessori teachers, the room is everything. Its design must support the hands-on, individual-learning model of the school. And so Jones worked even before her contract started to get her room ready for TPS’ new experiment.

As Jones sat on one of tiny chairs scattered across her room, Superintendent Deborah Gist walked in. Before the former elementary teacher-turned-administrator walked around the room, scoping it out, she acknowledged what Jones’ presence meant.

“This is the kind of time our teachers spend getting their rooms ready before they’re even back in school,” said Gist, exploring the room as she talked. She used her phone to snap photos of the room and the work being done there.

When Gist and other administrators toured the building Tuesday, they were positively giddy. It’s not often that Tulsa Public Schools opens a new, or at least newish, school.

The school has existed for more than 100 years, but this school year it will have renovated facilities and a whole new method of instruction.

At the main entrance, Gist noted the doors on either side, one set facing Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and another set facing Boston Avenue and the neighborhood beyond, something the Brady Heights neighborhood had wanted, Gist said.

The neighborhood and the area around the school have been growing in recent years due to downtown Tulsa’s resurgence.

School board member Gary Percefull said a school serving the burgeoning growth downtown is essential.

However, it’s the Montessori method that will make the school stand out the most. Montessori uses a largely self-paced, individualized learning model that uses hands-on activities to build real-world skills and concentration.

Jones’ classroom has an old-fashioned washboard, some pitchers and cups, and other household supplies. The items are there, she said, to help teach students to focus and to develop the fine motor skills they’ll need when they learn something such as penmanship.

“They have built concentration like you cannot imagine. They can sit with stuff for a really long time,” she said.

Jones thinks the Montessori method is better than the broader approach she has used previously at Skelly Elementary School.

“It’s everything. It’s respectful to kids. It’s tailored to each child. It’s hands-on, and it’s real life,” Jones said. “Sometimes when you use broad curriculum, like a math curriculum or a reading curriculum, you’re taking a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t respect where the child is.

“They might not have the knowledge that they would previously need to get that skill, so they’re not caught up to that level, or they might be so beyond it that they’re just sitting there, just bored out of their minds,” Jones said.

“This place is really going to give kids what they need.”

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Samuel Hardiman


Twitter: @samhardiman