New Digs for a Reimagined Way of Learning

04 Aug 2021

Work, purpose, and joy are alive at Moore County’s first public Montessori school

By Ray Owen   »  Photos by Brandon Williams

Life is stirring at the old Southern Pines Elementary on May Street as it transitions to the new home of Moore Montessori Community School (MMCS). Founded in 2018 as our region’s first and only public Montessori, MMCS recently acquired the campus after the former elementary school moved to a larger facility.

MMCS is a vibrant learning community, its method of teaching developed in the early 1900s by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori. The program utilizes hands-on learning, collaborative work and self-directed activity, with individualized curriculum supporting the needs of each child.

“There are four elements to our mission,” says Katie Rucker, MMCS Founder and Head of School. “We build strong academic foundations, executive function skills and teach children to trust in their abilities, in preparation for lives of joy and purpose in the 21st century.”

Rucker, a Southern Pines native, describes Montessori classrooms as beautiful, ordered and inviting. From child-sized chairs to brightly colored materials arranged on low shelves, classroom elements are designed to build a sense of independence. Working within a peaceful environment, students practice concentration, self-discipline and respect for others.

“It is a rich and dynamic model,” explains Rucker. “You won’t find a teacher at a desk commanding the attention of 30 students at the same time. Children are given one-on-one or small group lessons and then they’re invited to work with material until they master it – learning by doing.”

When Rucker’s oldest son got into a public Montessori program in Washington, D.C., she became intrigued by this comprehensive form of education. She encountered children doing different things with focus and purpose – calm, happy, hard at work. It felt more like a science lab than a traditional classroom.

“My sister and I wrote a charter application to open the school,” says Rucker. “The state unanimously approved it, and we were able to open it in just a few years. My family came back to Southern Pines, my husband and two children, and we live in downtown. I am so excited to move into this campus and see what we can do with it.”

As a public school, it’s free to attend MMCS, which serves an economically diverse student body, grades K-5. The school offers free and reduced lunch to families that qualify as well as transportation to school.

Families interested in enrolling their children sign them up through an online lottery registration that opens every January 1st to 31st. Demand for the school is high and there are usually 100 families on the waitlist at the end of the enrollment period.

“This is a monumental moment,” says Rucker. “We’re moving out of our first campus into a big beautiful 12-acre location in downtown Southern Pines. It’s opening so many opportunities for us to serve students and families in this community.”

“We have an incredible staff and that is what makes it. The founding staff and those we’ve added are what make this a special place – we built this school together. I’m proud of our diversity and how our teachers reflect the students that we’re serving.”

The new MMCS campus is an important community landmark, significant for its educational legacy. The site was first occupied by a structure designed by architect Aymar Embury II, completed during the 1922-23 school year. This first building was replaced in the 1950s to accommodate the growing student body.

At the back of the property is a full athletic field. Coming down the campus, there is a one-story building constructed in the 1940s with a slate roof and incredible architectural details. There’s also a 500-seat auditorium and a full-size gymnasium built in the late 40s, early 50s. The main building on May Street is the largest, built in the 1950s.

“I really want to be able to restore the campus,” says Rucker. “I believe that within five years, we’ll be able to bring this to its full potential. We are in the early stages of our capital campaign. As we get into the buildings and understand the need – the bones and structures of the campus are incredible but there are things that need to be updated.”

“I would love to have a Montessori teacher training center on the campus. I do think we’ll be a regional hub for Montessori and within five years we will be a leading public program in the South. I also want to be a space for the community and wrap-around services for our students – there are so many possibilities.”

“Learning is fun,” says Rucker. “Children are designed to understand the world around them, and we’re preparing an environment that allows them to do just that. Montessori allows children to come to that ‘aha moment’ on their own and to get that sense of accomplishment when they figured it out. That’s really what makes all the hard work worth it.”

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