Magnolia Montessori for All: Lighting the Path to Personalized Learning

Magnolia Montessori for All: Lighting the Path to Personalized Learning

The Getting Smart team spent the last year exploring next gen schools. With support from Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), Tom, Caroline, Carri and Megan set off to learn more about the forward-leaning leaders who are building and inspiring new models of teaching and learning. Their report, Lighting the Path to Personalized Learning: Inspiring Stories from Next Gen Schools, highlights three attributes of personalized learning through the stories of the schools they visited and learned from:

• High Expectations for College Readiness
• Personalized Learning for All Students
• Optimized for Scale

Five stories align with High Expectations for College Readiness. Here is the story of one of them: Magnolia Montessori for All.

Like many of the great schools we have visited, Magnolia Montessori For All was unassuming at first glance. Located in northeast Austin, Texas 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 welcoming visitors. In the fall of 2013, Caroline 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. Cotner wasn’t naïve, 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 Montessori is a champion of both blended learning and the potential of a school dedicated to true college and career readiness for all its students. The school opened its doors as a public charter in the fall of 2014 with grades pre-K through 3. It will reach full capacity in 2019 with students through grade 8. Cotner witnessed the achievement gap firsthand in schools across the country while working as an AmeriCorps volunteer recruiting tutors for the public education system. Beyond basic benchmarks of state assessments and testing, Cotner discovered Montessori when she started “looking for a truly transformational approach to education that would not only help children get to college but would help them get through college and succeed in the ever-changing global economy—in addition to becoming agents of change in their families and communities.” (See Cotner’s full staff profile and learn more about her philosophy at the Magnolia Montessori For All website.)

Magnolia Montessori sees four key problematic responses to NCLB that are teaching our children to jump through test-related hoops rather than keeping the focus on strong instruction, skill acquisition and life skill assessment: canceling non-tested subjects, considering the tests to be the high bar instead of the bare minimum, focusing on test-specific skills rather than fundamentals, and over-administering benchmarks. (For a student perspective on testing, as well as other perspectives, see NPR’s As Testing Season Opens In Schools, Some Ask: How Much Is Too Much?)

This school was formed in the face of these perceived restrictions and seeks to answer one fundamental question related to student growth and preparedness: “How can we adjust course, and create a system that favors individualized, data-driven, systematic instruction which is focused on educating the whole child?” (From Educating in the Shadow of NCLB—The good, the bad and moving out from under) Cotner sees three ways to answer this question that drives her educational passion—a passion that was clear to Caroline when she spent that afternoon in Cotner’s kitchen.


First, use data to systematically monitor progress and drive instruction: NCLB has helped to illuminate the very real gaps between different groups of students but has lagged in providing solutions to close those gaps. In order to do so, Montessori For All envisions monitoring each child’s progress and using the data they collect daily to determine crucial next steps for increasing student growth and progress. New tools integrated into blended learning have enabled teachers and administrators to capture and compare a greater range of data than was ever available in the past to help each child meet specific goals.

Second, combine data-guided acumen with innovative models of teaching to personalize student instruction. As Cotner points out in Educating in the Shadow of NCLB—The good, the bad and moving out from under, “Teaching everyone the same thing at the same time and in the same way leaves higher-performing children bored and lower-performing children frustrated and tuned out.”

Most teachers’ colleges and educators are intimately familiar with Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development and recognize that children working within this space make more efficient and effective progress. Compelling blended learning models are beginning to address the challenge of differentiating instruction and are significantly increasing how frequently students access their own zone of proximal development—a key NGLC design component on the trajectory of college and career readiness. Combining blended learning with the Montessori model, another long-standing methodology that designs classroom interactions to address the needs of children with different interests and abilities, is a natural fit.

Third, broaden what is measured in schools and what is taught. Cotner believes that engaging students at the intersection of what is relevant and what they are passionate about while measuring true learning ing and growth is fundamentally necessary for the magnification of learning. While Cotner and Magnolia Montessori believe that Maria Montessori would be pro-EdTech if she were around today, they are not the only NGLC grantees to see the wisdom of increased student readiness and the role that technology might play.


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 bilingual requirements set by the school. Magnolia has an early release day every Friday to allow for two 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, the 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 Austin. The decision to start early allows for two longer breaks during the school year, one in October and one in March. Cotner 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 the Magnolia team has been thoughtful when it comes to supporting their teachers.

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.

Cotner is confident that as the school year progresses they will find more ways to involve parents, including weekend field trips, committees and parent-teacher conferences.

Cotner 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 Cotner 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,” Cotner said.


The diversity at Magnolia is striking, but incredibly reflective of the community the school is based in. Cotner 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 (Magnolia Montessori Begins to Bloom).


Read the stories of other next gen schools in Lighting the Path to Personalized Learning: Inspiring Stories from Next Gen Schools.

Written by Getting Smart

Getting Smart

Getting Smart supports innovations in learning, education & technology. Our mission is to help more young people get smart & connect to the idea economy.

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