- Project Name
- Magnolia Montessori For All
- Montessori for All
- Project Types
- Project Scope
- New Construction
- 40,000 sq. feet
- Shared by
- Project Status
A public charter school overcame a tight budget and a tough site to make Montessori education more accessible.
Before 2014, there were more than 20 Montessori schools in Austin, Texas—most private, and all on the more affluent, western side of I-35, which for generations has split the city geographically, racially, and economically. That year, Sara Cotner and Sarah Kirby Tepera launched Magnolia Montessori For All, the city’s first public charter Montessori school. In January, they moved into a purpose-built campus east of I-35 designed by the Austin office of Page.
“Montessori For All (MFA) tries to build a more just and peaceful world by cultivating future leaders who find purpose and joy in their own lives and advocate for others to do the same,” Cotner says. “To do that, we need to dramatically increase the number of public Montessori schools in diverse cities across the United States.”
Magnolia, MFA’s first school, has 500 students ranging from infants to sixth-graders, but it doesn’t have a typical institutional structure: “We believe that schools can catalyze human potential, and to do that, you want to create the most nurturing environment possible,” Cotner says. So for the new campus, “we tried to create what feels like a second family.” As such, Magnolia is residentially scaled, with one- or two-classroom buildings clustered around three open play areas—one each for young children and lower and upper elementary ages. Students in every classroom are paired with one teacher, and they stay in that space for the duration of the day. The three-classroom clusters are connected by a sloped pathway through the campus, and surrounded by yet more play areas and outdoor recreation spaces, including a central covered plaza where the whole school can gather.
Cotner and Kirby Tepera paid relatively little for the East Austin site. “They didn’t realize why at the time,” says project architect Shelby Blessing, AIA. The 9-acre property drops 30 feet in elevation from the western to the eastern edge, and the soil is an expansive clay that required each classroom to be built on a structured foundation on void forms with 25-foot piers. “There’s a lot of money underground,” Blessing says, which put pressure on an already tight $11.67 million budget.
But what may have helped the budget most was what Page didn’t build: Magnolia’s clusters of small buildings contain 40,000 square feet of educational space, but they do not include a cafeteria, gym, or long hallways and circulation, saving money both up front and over time. The firm commissioned independent benchmarking, which discovered that this campus “has 45 percent less square footage than the trend for most schools, which translates to a savings of $26 million in owner avoidance over the next 30 years,” project manager Chad Johnson says. The villagelike form of the school was also budget friendly: “It worked well for a startup school and their fundraising, because they were able to release the start of construction on different buildings in phases,” Johnson says.
As for the design above grade, “the major architectural moves don’t come from an expensive materials palette—it’s very simple—but from a refined treatment of details,” Blessing says. That reductive palette includes Allura fiber cement lap and board-and-batten siding, shingled roofs, and exposed wood rafters. In addition to answering budget needs, the focus on an “honesty of materials” fits with the Montessori ideology, Johnson says.
Each classroom is accessed via a covered front porch. Inside, the white-walled spaces are filled with windows that maximize both daylight and cross breezes. While most ceiling heights are 9 feet, they drop to 8 feet in the younger children’s classrooms to “make it a little cozier,” Blessing says.
Teachers worked with the design team to ensure that the rooms were optimized for each grade level. Millwork changes from classroom to classroom to accommodate growing bodies—for example, with 20-inch-tall sinks in the young children’s classrooms and larger-scaled shared cubbies in the upper elementary rooms—but it is always made out of birch plywood that matches the standard Montessori furniture throughout. Each classroom also has a covered back porch that can be used by the students for their individually focused and self-driven lessons.
MFA’s goal is to create one showcase school in each district it enters, which can serve as an example for others who want to do the same. “We are not trying to compete with the local districts,” Cotner says. “We want to be a resource within each city to help the develop or strengthen their own Montessori program.” Already, MFA has opened a school in San Antonio based on the example set at Magnolia.
As for the impact in Austin, in addition to the 500 students currently enrolled, there are 500 kids on a waiting list. The breakdown of the current 500 students reflects the makeup of the city around it: 64 percent are minorities, and 50 percent qualify for free or reduced-cost school lunch programs. The choice to open Magnolia on the city’s east side was an important one to Cotner and Kirby Tepera because “families who can afford it choose a neighborhood that is zoned to a high-performing school,” Cotner says, but a public charter school is “one of the few mechanisms that enables families in low-income neighborhoods to have the same kind of choice. We seek to build a racially, culturally, and socio-economically diverse community.”
Project: Magnolia Montessori For All, Austin, Texas
Client: Montessori For All
Architect/Interior Designer: Page, Austin, Texas . Larry Speck, FAIA, Robert Burke, Assoc. AIA, Daniel Brooks, AIA, Chad Johnson, Shelby Blessing, AIA, Jim Brady, FAIA, Jonathan Schwartz, AIA, Meredith Contello, Alan Lampert, Michael Henry, Kathy McPhail (project team)
Structural Engineer: Architectural Engineers Collaborative
M/E/P Engineer: MEP Engineering
Civil Engineer: Urban Design Group
Geotechnical Engineer: Terracon Consultants
General Contractor: Rogers-O’Brien Construction
Landscape: Coleman & Associates
Technology/Security/Audiovisual Consultant: True North Consulting Group
Size: 40,000 square feet, with additional 10,000 square feet of outdoor amenities
Cost: $11.67 million