LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – It was a pretty typical middle-school assignment: read a book and review it for the rest of the class.

But Jonathan Lydian and the other eighth graders at Westport Middle School had many options to complete the task other than the standard written report.

Some made posters and PowerPoint presentations. Others wrote songs or drew images.

These are all valid ways of learning in Westport’s popular, six-year-old Montessori magnet program, which emphasizes child-led, hands-on instruction. The program was modeled on similar approaches at Coleridge-Taylor and John F. Kennedy elementary schools.

“I love having the freedom to choose how I want to learn,” says Jonathan, who wants to be a veterinarian. "Instead of being all crammed up in one area with a bunch of kids, you can move around. I think different types of learning, like Montessori, will help you progress up to what you want to be."

But when it comes time for 13-year-old Jonathan to move on to high school, Jefferson County Public Schools has no Montessori option for him to choose.

 “It’s kind of like an unfinished bridge,” said Westport principal Jodie Zeller. “We can get you so far, but we can’t get you to the end.”

JCPS officials have been talking about expanding the Montessori program to include high school grades since at least 2013, but no concrete plan had emerged until earlier this month -- when Central High School submitted an application to start a Montessori magnet.

“This is an exciting time for us and for this community because this is something we truly believe will meet the needs of so many students,” Central principal Raymond Green told WDRB in an interview last week.

Montessori education is based on the work of Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator who discovered that many students perform best in an environment that nurtures individual learning styles and provides children with the freedom to purse a self-directed education.

During class, teachers set goals for the students and they are given time to reach those goals on their own and with the teacher's help if needed. And students are encouraged to tailor the lessons to their interests.

"It really challenges kids to take ownership of their learning,” says Zeller, who has watched the program at Westport become more popular each year. "It puts a lot of choice in the kids’ hands, as to how they want to learn."

Now that Central High's magnet application has been submitted, it will be up to Superintendent Donna Hargens and her cabinet to bring a recommendation to the Jefferson County Board of Education for discussion and approval.

Under the plan, Central would start with about 50 students in the ninth grade as early as the 2017-18 year.

“As the program grows in popularity, we would make space,” Green said.

The idea excites parents like Stacy Lydian, Jonathan’s mom. Jonathan attended the Montessori program at John F. Kennedy Elementary before continuing the self-directed learning at Westport.

“Jonathan has really thrived in the Montessori setting and I would love to see that continue as he begins high school next year,” she said. “It’s something we’ve been hoping would happen for a very long time.”

Hundreds of public and private schools throughout the United States use the Montessori philosophy, although it’s always been more common at the elementary and middle school levels.

The program at Westport started in 2010 with 50 students in one sixth-grade class. Six years later, it has grown to more than 300 students. Zeller said he has had to turn away hundreds of students because of limited space.

But now that Central has made an official bid to expand the Montessori program, Westport plans to submit an application to double the capacity of its magnet program to 200 students at each level.

“It’s something we have been talking about for a while,” Zeller said.

Like Central, Westport would also need school board approval in order to move forward.

Green said four or five teachers would need to receive training and that he has already talked to the University of Louisville and Xavier University in Cincinnati.

"We are ready to roll with this," he said. "We think it's a great opportunity."

Green said the idea to bring the Montessori program to Central arose about a year ago, shortly after he arrived as principal and he and a team of teachers were exploring ways to improve the educational landscape in Louisville.

“We noticed that one of the things missing was a Montessori high school program,” he said. “So we formed a committee to explore the possibility – what would a high school Montessori program entail and how would it fit at Central?”

Last winter, the committee went to Cincinnati to visit the city’s two public Montessori high schools. One of them – Clark Montessori – is the nation’s first public Montessori high school.

“We built a good working relationship with those schools and were able to share with them the type of programs we have now and see if there could be a marriage of what we currently offer and what could be offered with a Montessori program,” Green said.

The committee then sent a few members of the team to Chicago for the American Montessori Society conference in March.

“It was an incredible experience,” he said. “We really got to interact first-hand with the leading national and global experts on Montessori education.”

Green also held three design meetings last year – two at Westport and one at Central –  to ask parents and students what they’d like to see.

“There was a lot of interest and a lot of ideas generated at those meetings,” Green said.

Central is a districtwide magnet school, which means the school does not have a “resides” population. Every student attending Central has to apply and be accepted.

The school already has a variety of popular magnet programs – law & government, nursing, veterinary science, dental science, business/sports marketing, business finance, entrepreneurship and technology – and Green says the addition of the Montessori program would be a “perfect marriage.”

“The purpose of a magnet school is to be magnetic – you need to offer programs you can’t get at another school,” he said. “The beauty of Montessori education is that meets students where they are and allows them to work at a pace that is suitable to them… It’s not a content to be learned, it’s a way of learning.”

Reporter Antoinette Konz can be reached at 585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

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