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  • Writer's pictureJesse Flint

CM Teens Program Featured in the News and Tribune!

Empowering teens

Community Montessori programs focus on developmental needs

Photos by Brooke McAfee | News and Tribune

Teenagers Alex Wheat (left) and Lucy Adams (right) gather Wednesday in an area of Community Montessori meant to provide a peaceful space for teens.



NEW ALBANY — For teenagers at Community Montessori, it’s not the traditional high school experience.

The New Albany K-12 school follows a different structure than most schools, including flexible programs tailored to students’ individual developmental needs.

Community Montessori Director Barbara Burke Fondren said the charter school continues to adapt its teen program from year to year.

The teen staff are the “architects” of the program as they listen to the teens and pay attention to their needs, she said. This includes focusing on the social and emotional well-being of the teens.

“We survey the teens every year and say, what are we missing?” Burke Fondren said. “What do we need to do more? We try to create options and choices for them to move into... We think [it] also completely blends together with social and emotional health, which is probably the most needed thing in our teens’ program right now and [for] all teens maybe around the world.”

Burke Fondren said the school started creating the teen program around 2004 or 2005, and the school considered ways to focus on the kids’ needs.

“We always had the plan to add an age level every year, and we knew we wanted it to be centered around the learner instead of around the adults,” she said. “And oftentimes, a traditional high school can get really focused on the adults, because you’ve got to fill all the class times and there are bells and blocks and so forth.”

At Community Montessori, students are instead called learners, and teachers are advisors. Instead of traditional classrooms, the school includes open spaces with different studios.

The school focuses on “choice and flexibility.”

“Over this last 10, 8 years, we’ve been trying to think about, what do we want each person to have — certain skills and so forth — as they move on, so they can do whatever their life journey is, whether that’s [to] go to a four-year college or go to a two-year college or to get a certification or just go into the workforce or do mission work,” Burke Fondren said.

For 17-year-old Seth Couveau, Community Montessori has provided an opportunity to pursue creative projects such as costume design, which is for a capstone project.

Couveau has also been involved in projects such as the production of a diorama and a short movie. He started the school in eighth grade after attending public school.

Seth Couveau, 17, is creating a costume based on a fictional character in a series called “Warhammer 40,000.” This is among the creative projects he has pursued in Community Montessori’s teen program.

“You would not be able to do this in a normal public school,” Couveau said. “It’s definitely factoring stuff that I enjoy doing such as costume design.”

The school has a “renewal time” for students that is kind of like recess for teenagers. Danielle Manzo Bair, a teen studio support coordinator, said this was added a couple of years ago based on observations of what the teens needed in school.

“They have options to go outside and play—like kids, teens need play,” she said. “They also have the option to stay inside and play games with one another—different types of play or just talking. Teens are hugely social, and actually giving that time to socialize is important.”

Community Montessori recently redesigned a common space for the teen program to provide a “collaborative café-like environment” with furniture that students can adjust and rearrange as needed, according to Manzo Bair. This provides “ownership and empowerment” for the teens, Burke Fondren said.

In the past few years, the school has started a coffee cart called the “Cosmic Café.” This year, a teen will begin a management position at the café.

Students have also taken the initiative to create a “sensory overload” space where they can go “if they’re feeling overwhelmed or if they need a minute to themselves,” Manzo Bair said.

In the past couple of years, one of the new additions is “flex time” for teens.

“So teens can come in later, they can leave earlier—different ways for them to be a part of a school that doesn’t feel so restrictive,” Burke Fondren said. “They can kind of create their courses sometimes. A lot of them go off campus for courses.”

Burke Fondren said Community Montessori’s internship program is an important part of their education. Teens participate in full-day internships one day a week throughout the semester.

“We don’t give them a piece of paper and say, this is where you’re going to go,” she said. “We say, who are you, what do you want to do in life?”

Abby Kerns, teen transition coordinator at Community Montessori, supports teens as they receive dual credits through Ivy Tech Community College. They can take classes at the Ivy Tech Sellersburg campus.

“We have a great partnership with them so that [teens] can have an opportunity to see what that world might be like before they leave our building,” Kerns said.

Aimee Joy is an advisor and “courage coordinator” in the teen program. One of her roles is to coordinate mental health services.

Burke Fondren noted the importance of Joy’s work in teaching students to be courageous.

“That’s one of the biggest things we’re teaching these young people to be is courageous, whether that is self-advocating, whether that is setting personal or professional boundaries or saying I need help,” she said.

The school partners with Centerstone for therapy services on campus, and the school is hoping to receive grant funding to expand the services.

The staff also focuses on a “holistic role” in meeting the needs of learners, according to Burke Fondren. Joy said that “everybody in the teens’ program is really good at supporting individuals.”

This means supporting youth who may need extra support, including LGBTQ teens. Joy supports a student group called the “Queer Collective,” which offers a time for students to connect and “form some community.”

“I tried to bring some queer history, and we are able to connect over the things that are traumatizing to us that are happening in the world of families or sometimes even in our friend groups, but I also tried to bring in queer celebration and joy,” she said.

Joy said Community Montessori has a “solid history” of supporting transgender youth.

“It happened in a lot of really organic ways,” she said. “We never had an issue with bathrooms, because every studio has one unisex bathroom. So when that was a big thing in the news, I don’t think that really affected this school in the same way.”

Burke Fondren emphasized the need to support LGBTQ youth.

“That is obviously one of the most high-needs groups for mental health needs and suicidal risk, and so really showing a welcoming community for all people regardless is super important to us,” she said.

Students Skye Berry, Katie Nash and Angie Ard work together in a common space at Community Montessori in New Albany.

Community Montessori advisor Melanie Swihart talks to 17-year-old Nathan Merk at the New Albany school during a weekly advisory meeting.

Photos and story by Brooke McAfee | News and Tribune

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