With its first year under its belt, Libertas School of Memphis brings a different approach to boosting test scores in chronically low-performing schools than do its fellow state-authorized charter schools.

A Montessori school, Libertas teaches content through experience. Worksheets and test skill lessons are rare. Instead, students learn by working with blocks, beads, wooden letters and other materials.

“If you’re doing it with your hands, then of course you’re going to be able to do it on paper,” said teacher Paula Payne. “They’re not just learning something for a test. … (Testing) is not the best way to learn it.”

And yet, testing and test prep are a daily focus of other schools within the Achievement School District, or ASD. The state-run district takes over schools with some of the state’s worst test scores and usually assigns them to charter networks charged with significantly raising those scores.

But at Libertas, formerly known as Brookmeade Elementary School under Shelby County Schools, testing does not have the appearance of being front and center in daily lessons. In Tennessee, standardized testing doesn’t begin until the third grade, and Libertas now only serves students in preschool through the second grade.

The school plans to phase in an additional grade each year, however. When Libertas adds the school’s first tested grade next fall, its teachers are confident the Montessori model will transition well.

Late last school year, Chalkbeat spent 30 minutes one afternoon inside Marva Bell’s classroom, where a mix of 25 preschoolers, kindergarteners and first-graders worked mostly independently under the supervision of Bell and two teaching assistants. Here’s what we saw:

A classroom at Libertas School of Memphis with students from pre-K to first grade working in the same room. The charter operator is authorized by the state-run Achievement School District and took over Brookmeade Elementary School in 2015.
Students work on small mats scattered around a classroom at Libertas School of Memphis.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede

1:45 p.m. The classroom has carpet in the center and no desks. Around the room’s perimeter are stations for various subjects with materials that students pull from to work on their own small floor mats around the room.

One 6-year-old student spells out two sentences using small wooden letters — red ones for consonants, blue ones for vowels — based on the previous week’s lesson in sentence structure.

“I want a shark. They so cool,” the student spells out. Bell shows him the missing verb in his second sentence and moves on to another student.

1:50 p.m. One kindergartener works on a chart using beginning word sounds — such as “cl,” “sh” and “br” — and a stack of pictures. He attempts to match the name of the object in the picture to its corresponding word sound.

Though each of these exercises could be done with pencil and paper, Bell said the variety and experience help the lessons stick. “Everything (with Montessori) is always concrete to abstract,” said Bell, noting that the paper-and-pencil approach to building testing knowledge is too abstract for children. “The constant worksheets and the constant staying in your seat is not work.”

Libertas School of Memphis teacher Marva Bell checks a student's work at the end of the day.
Teacher Marva Bell checks a student’s work.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede

1:55 p.m. Students carry clipboards showing the types of lessons they need to work on that day. Bell checks on another student who is using wooden letters to spell out words that describe a picture. Her teaching assistants also roam the room checking on student work and helping as needed.

2:10 p.m. The first student brings his completed clipboard to Bell. Since it’s a Friday, she reviews and asks questions about the week’s lessons to hear what he learned.

Each day’s lessons fall into four categories: math; reading and writing; social studies and science; and sensorial, which is any activity that employs the five senses. Sensorial activities include matching bell tones or fitting wooden cylinders of varying lengths and thickness into holes. “They get to process through movement,” Bell said. “They’re biologically wired to move. … Many teachers across the world are realizing we need to do something different.”

2:13 p.m. As lessons come to a close, Bell suggests that students, depending on their learning level, find either a sensorial activity or read.