Several students gathered around a rug in the corner of a Montessori classroom in Aiken last week as their teacher reintroduced herself to the class.
Sarah Strom is one of two lead Montessori teachers at Horse Creek Academy who welcomed her 4 and 5-year-old students to another year of the program which requires three uninterrupted hours of classwork each school day.
Strom, who is one of the youngest teachers at the charter school, received the First Year Teacher of the Year award in June for her success with the program, which she has taught for the past three years.
Frank Roberson, executive director of Horse Creek Academy, said Strom’s efforts with the program have been outstanding.
“She does a phenomenal job with the Montessori program which is a very unique method of providing learning opportunities for students as they explore in the learning environment and learn accordingly,” he said.
Over the three years Strom has taught the program class sizes have increased by 35 percent, Roberson said.
“She is very specific and very dedicated, and the students and the parents love her,” he said. “In fact the doors are being beaten down to get into the program, we just don’t have the accommodations to accept everybody.”
The academy was first started in Graniteville as Midland Valley Preparatory School in 2002.
During that time the small preparatory school had low enrollment in its 4K to sixth-grade classes. However, the school soon expanded to include education for seventh- and eighth-graders and in the fall of 2013 moved to Aiken as Horse Creek Academy.
Roberson said the continued success of the school is a team effort which Strom contributes to.
“The entire staff is to be given credit for creating a high culture that taps the natural academic talents of each student,” he said. “Teaching and learning comprise the powerful formula that parents and students are recognizing and responding to here at (the academy).”
Although the first day of class began with seven of her former students, Strom said thirteen more, ages 4 and up, will be added by the end of fall semester.
“We’ll have all the new students in 4K stagger in two or three at a time starting next week,”she said as each of her seven students rolled a mat onto the classroom floor to work on their individual activities.
“It just helps them adjust easier to the environment because they already know some of the procedures and everything, to get the rug, to roll it out, to find their lesson, to clean up and put it away, but it’s a lot for a new kid.”
As part of the Montessori program, lessons are taught and worked on individually and each student’s concentration is protected. It also demands that students solve their own problems and learn from their peers and from community building.
Strom said it was often difficult to arrange one set plan for the multi-age program.
“When I first saw it I didn’t really understand it but as I learned more, and I saw the growth that the students made, I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she said.
She said the self-directed learning environment is a unique benefit of the program which students in a public school setting do not get to experience.
“I just think it’s the best thing for the child,” Strom said. “It’s all individualized and it’s not for a certain type of child, it’s for every child, and there’s not many methods of teaching like that.”
She also listed the freedom to observe and decide what’s best for each child in a “tight knit environment” as a significant benefit of teaching at the charter school as opposed to one that is public.
“I’m rarely told what to do or how to do it,” Strom said “I’m trusted to do what I went to school for.”
With the new school year underway, Strom said her aim for the semester is to continue to challenge her students and “watch them grow.”
“What I’m really excited about this year is that these are my big guys, they’re the ones that are going to set the examples, they are the ones that are going to help me teach the younger kids,” Strom said. “Just two years ago they were starting school and they were the ones that needed all the coaching but it’s just great to see that they’re the ones that will kind of hold the reins.”