Like many of the great schools I’ve visited, Magnolia Montessori was unassuming at first glance. Located in northeast Austin far away from South Congress and the well known food trucks, a row of portable classrooms connected by decking and a small school sign on the front of the building welcome visitors. A year ago, I sat in Sara Cotner’s kitchen and couldn’t help but get excited about this school as she talked about the plans and was honest about the challenges she knew they would face. Opening a school is hard work and includes many more operational, finance and facility struggles than most leaders anticipate. Sara wasn’t naive, but she did have faith and determination that her team was well equipped to open a strong school just twelve months later. Her educated optimism made her the perfect founder and leader of this Montessori-based school.
Magnolia proves it’s not the building that makes a school great – it’s the culture that Sara and her team have built. With more than 280 students, in grades Pre-K3 to third grade it hasn’t been a slow path that some schools chose. There was an incredible need and desire for a school like this in Austin. With a long waiting list of students, Magnolia will not have a problem growing by one grade each year until they reach eighth grade. Their campus sits on 9 acres of land with enough space to build a permanent campus in the coming years. Over this school year, gardens will be planted in 320 square feet of beds that are just waiting for students to get their hands dirty and learn about gardening. The front of the property boasts a large outdoor play space and ample decks around the portables have fostered an outdoor classroom environment that extends the walls of their current space.
Sara and her team admit opening a school has been challenging and exhausting but incredibly rewarding. There are days when they question if they are succeeding and whether it’s all been worth it, but on those hard days magical moments happen. As Sara recalled, it’s the moments like two children from completely different backgrounds hopping out of their parents’ cars in front of school and running to each other. They grab hands and smile and walk together to their classroom. “That’s the start of world peace,” said Sara. The diversity at Magnolia is striking, but incredibly reflective of the community the school is based in. Sara chose to build not only the school, but her home in this community. It was important to her to raise her children in the neighborhood and develop roots where her students lived.
Following in Montessori tradition, Magnolia is fostering an environment of high expectations and self directed learning for all students. Throughout the year students will learn to direct their learning and plan field studies and field trips to complete their work. Weekend visits and trips with parents will help connect families to the students learning. Classrooms feature several different centers for learning with multiple activities happening at each station. Some students will work independently, while others partner to complete a lesson or help a peer. Teachers (known as guides) spend time in small group instruction and give students targeted and direct feedback. Learning is visual and tangible at Magnolia.
High expectations aren’t just for students at Magnolia. Teachers attend Spanish lessons weekly to meet their bi-lingual requirements set by the school. Magnolia has an early release day every Friday to allow for 2 hours of professional development time. PD isn’t just something they do to check it off the list. It’s thoughtful and meets the needs of teachers and students. The team focuses on timely topics based on what is happening at the school. For example leading up to parent-teacher conferences, her team spent time discussing what should be included in parent conversations and how to best structure their time.
Magnolia started its school year three weeks before most schools in the area. The decision to start early allows for two longer breaks during the school year, one in October and one in March. Sara hopes that allowing for rest and rejuvenation throughout the year, as well as a few more professional development days for teachers will contribute to job satisfaction. The teachers’ lounge features a treadmill and yoga classes are offered as well. It’s clear that Sara and her team have been thoughtful when it comes to supporting their leaders.
As many school leaders know finding time and resources to successfully and adequately communicate and educate parents and guardians is a struggle. With an incredibly diverse family population at Magnolia, including multiple languages, finding ways to inform parents and keep them posted on school and student progress has been challenging. To start the school year off, teachers did home visits with every student before the start of school. Teachers keep parents updated on their students through classroom pictures, and one-on-one contact. With so many students coming from traditional public schools, there is also a need to educate parents about the differences in a Montessori education. Sara is confident that has the school year progresses they will find more ways to involve parents, including weekend field trips, committees and parent-teacher conferences.
While it has not been easy, Magnolia opened its doors and is off to a successful start. A constant focus on doing what is best for the students, has led Sara and her team down this path. They have remained optimistic despite months of facility and land struggles and are clear on the ways they need to improve this school year. Increasing parent communication, reducing class size and finding more time to be in classrooms seem to be high priority for Sara and her dedicated team.
Magnolia Montessori is a Next Generation Learning Challenge Grantee. For more on Magnolia see the NGLC school profile. For more on NGLC grantees see a few of our recent posts:
- Building Relationships and Expanding Expectations at Brooklyn Lab
- 10 Lessons Learned from Game Changers and Ground Breakers
- Planning for Long Term Success through Sustainability and Scalability
NGLC is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner.