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Education

At this CMS Montessori high school, therapy chickens are part of the program

Pair with chickens.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
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WFAE
Agriculture teacher Katherine Pair tosses meal worms to chickens and a duck being raised as therapy animals at J.T. Williams Montessori Secondary School.

As schools around the region start recruiting families for the coming school year, they're showing off what makes them distinctive. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' J.T. Williams Montessori School is working to raise independent young adults ... and therapy chickens.

On a chilly December morning, agriculture teacher Katherine Pair strides across the campus in north Charlotte, delivering a large chopping knife that's needed for morning chores.

Chopping for chickens.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
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WFAE
Christian Tugwell, a 10th-grader at Williams Montessori, chops vegetables to feed to the school's chickens and duck.

The knife ends up with 16-year-old Christian Tugwell.

"I am preparing a little scrap salad for the chickens, so they can eat and get strong and healthy," Tugwell explains as he chops carrots. They'll be mixed with lettuce, pepper, celery and some moldy bread from the school's refrigerator.

The chickens — and one duck — are part of the program at Williams Montessori, which serves about 370 students in grades 7 to 12. It’s an outgrowth of the popular Montessori magnet schools that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools offers for pre-K to sixth-grade students.

Carving out a niche

And it’s an example of the kind of options available to Charlotte-area families, as CMS competes with charter and private schools.

Principal Sophia Hazlehurst says her school, which opened five years ago, holds a distinction: "We are the only public Montessori high school in North Carolina."

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Ann Doss Helms
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WFAE
Student Jailan Booker (left) leads a discussion in Katherine Pair's agriculture class about soil erosion. He's slicing an apple to demonstrate the fraction of the earth that's suitable for crops.

There’s actually a Montessori charter school in eastern North Carolina that includes high school grades. But the Montessori program, which is widely available for younger students, is less common in high school. Tuition-free Montessori high schools are even rarer.

Montessori schools strive to help students find their own path through hands-on learning and interactions with classmates and the community. So you can imagine the impact of the pandemic, which kept CMS high schools in remote mode for most of last year.

"We really lost a lot of our program because of the pandemic," Hazlehurst says.

Williams Montessori graduated its first class in 2020, while schools were closed. "It was heartbreaking. It really was," Hazlehurst recalls. "We had been looking forward to that for like six years." 

Potty-training chicks and ducklings

Katherine Pair and her agriculture classes illustrate the energy that’s returning. When the school opened in August, students were greeted by Pair carrying baby chicks and ducklings in a belt with huge pockets.

"As long as they’re attached to you they begin to think that you’re their mother so they won’t go to the bathroom on you," Pair says. "So in essence you can kid of potty train them, which I thought was insane, but it’s true."

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Katherine Pair
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Students in Katherine Pair's agriculture class at Williams Montessori watch ducklings that arrived at the start of the school year (one didn't live long).

The school has a partnership with the farmers market at Camp North End. Pair’s students were already working with chickens, and over the summer one of the farmers suggested they try raising some to be therapy animals. That means the birds will visit places like nursing homes and preschools, which means they have to get comfortable with people.

Here’s how 14-year-old Elliot Nutting describes a therapy bird: "It’s really just a tool to help people with anxiety and stress to live in a more calm and peaceful environment."

Pair recruited students as bird buddies.

"I have a bunch of aprons with the big pockets in the front. And so they’ll put the aprons on and stick them in there," she said, chuckling at the memory. The babies are almost grown now, and getting ready to take on their new therapy assignments.

The Erdkinder path

Raising chickens — and building garden boxes, growing vegetables and cooking meals with them — is part of the Montessori philosophy of helping adolescents become adults.

"Erdkinder is Maria Montessori’s term for the adolescent," Pair explains. That’s German for “children of the earth.”

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Ann Doss Helms
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WFAE
Logan Hunsinger (left) and Elliot Nutting watch the chickens eat their morning scrap salad.

"Her ideal would be that they would move away and live on a farm and like run a bed and breakfast or live on a farm without their parents and really experience natural consequences," she continues. "Get up and water the animals."

At the private Omni Montessori School, students in grades 7 to 9 report to a 13-acre working farm in Waxhaw. Tuition is almost $20,000 a year.

Williams Montessori is less bucolic. The school is surrounded by I-77, I-85 and Statesville Avenue. Finding the entrance means threading past 18-wheelers lined up for a nearby truck stop. The aging buildings once housed a middle school, then an alternative school for students with discipline problems.

For Pair, the setting is a chance to explain to her students that piles of furniture outside nearby apartments mean someone has been evicted, and to talk about how growing food relates to food insecurity and the dearth of healthy food in low-income neighborhoods.

"We’re in the city and you know, I’m not really trying to help them learn how to grow fields of corn and soybean," she says. "Like, the kids would not be interested in that."

Bringing out the humanity

In addition to the chickens and ducks, Pair brings in puppies and kittens when she’s fostering them for the Humane Society. It’s fun, but it’s also part of what you’ll often hear referred to as social and emotional learning.

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Metro Portraits of Charlotte
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J.T. Williams Montessori agriculture teacher Katherine Pair with one of her classroom ducks.

"You see these tough kids coming around the corner and they’re hooded up and they’re masked up, and they see a baby duck or a kitten and then they just melt into the kids that they are," she says.

It also means Pair's obligations go beyond teaching the subject matter: "They have to feel safe. They have to feel wanted. They have to feel a little bit of home at school. They have to know I’m on their side.

Like the students, the barnyard fowl at Williams Montessori have a lot of freedom within a safe setting. They can roam the campus until they hear the sound of Pair shaking a bag of dried mealworms.

"When it’s time to go home I just do this and they’ll usually come right up and meander in," she says.

This time last year, Pair and her colleagues had to use the internet to explain the Williams Montessori experience to prospective families and students. Now the school is hosting in-person campus tours.

Which, from Pair’s perspective, is a very good development.

"Virtual agriculture," she says, "is really not a thing." 

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