City Garden Montessori Charter School
Since opening its doors in 2008, City Garden Montessori Charter School, St. Louis, Missouri’s only neighborhood charter school, has pursued a single-minded vision of community engagement grounded in Montessori theory and practice and animated by an unwavering commitment to diversity, equity, and love.
The combination of local connections and unrelenting outreach has come to be known among the City Garden community as “radical hospitality.”
CGMS is situated in a racially diverse community and currently serves 300 students from grades PreK3 to 8.49% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. The preschool program (3-4s) operates on a sliding tuition scale, and students are admitted to the elementary school program via a lottery at age 5.
“We are hungry for spaces where we feel community in the sense of belonging and purpose and just of love” explains CGMS Executive Director and founding parent Christie Huck. Principal Nicole Evans elaborates, “It’s about what people should feel when they walk into City Garden Montessori; and when they leave they feel changed in some sort of way.” “Radical hospitality” is how the community achieves that feeling and it is a non-negotiable expectation for all City Garden staff.
Open Doors and Open Hearts
Since coming on as Principal in the Spring of 2013, Evans puts radical hospitality into practice in many ways, starting with the morning greeting. She, the Family Support Coordinator, and School Secretary, personally greet each arriving student every morning. “In the dead of the winter, I’m outside with my coat and my hat and my boots and my glove and my scarf around my face. But I am acting as if it is 70 degrees outside. We not only say good morning, we ask ‘How was the walk, how was your ride?’ Every now and again you have a child coming in and they’re in tears. We catch them right there at the door.”
Radical hospitality extends to ongoing community building events, like bowling and bingo or board game nights, which are free for school families. Huck and Evans also try to reduce barriers by providing dinner and childcare at many school events. Parents who want to start clubs are asked to ensure that the program will be accessible to all students.
High Performance & High Impact
In 2013, City Garden Montessori was one of two St. Louis public schools to earn a perfect score on the MSIP5 rating system. The school’s reputation as a high performing charter is one factor in its ability to attract a wide range of families.
“We have a full-time family support coordinator,” explains Huck, “Her whole job is to address nonacademic needs and to support families. We also built in a little bit of money for direct family needs in our budget from the beginning as well as for social things.”
Community and Neighborhood
City Garden Montessori is St. Louis’ only neighborhood charter school, and this has inspired numerous families to move back into the city, leading in part to a revitalization of the surrounding community.
The school has become an anchor in a part of town that previously known for drugs and violence, but is now the home of a pastry shop, a wine bar and an increasing number of green homes.
Huck and Evans are mindful that with rising housing demand comes a need to preserve affordable housing in the neighborhood and are drawing together a neighborhood task force to design an affordable housing initiative.
They also continue a strong outreach program to families who may not know about Montessori.
City Garden parents will sometimes knock on neighborhood doors bearing plates of cookies in order to extend a personal invitation. “Come see who we are. We care about education in the city of St. Louis for particularly this neighborhood but all children in the city. You deserve a quality education.”
Structuring Hospitality: Support, Staffing, Schedules
The practice of Radical Hospitality is a strategic proposition as much as it is a philosophical commitment. At CGMS that strategy is reflected in the school’s budget, staffing priorities, as well as the school’s calendar. The school employs two full-time professionals – a Family Support Coordinator and a Community Outreach Coordinator – whose duties revolve around ensuring that the needs of prospective and current families are met. The annual school budget also includes some discretionary funds to support families experiencing challenges. Finally, outreach is constant, including regular social gatherings, and an open door policy for all families.
Profile written by Mira Debs.