“I’m so excited!” Sharifa Hodges exclaims as she gives a tour of the site of her upcoming pre school, Seneca Village Montessori in Crown Heights.
“There will be three classrooms,” Hodges says as she steps over sheetrock and dust to showcase just how her school would look. “A little smaller than 500 square feet each. And here’s where the indoor playground will be.” Located on the ground floor of soon-to-be finished apartment building at 24 Ford Street, Seneca Village Montessori will open in January 2018.
The preschool is the manifestation of Hodges’ dream to create a school that embodies the whole well-being of a child while teaching them pride in African heritage.
“The Montessori part means the whole child approach,” she explains. “Cognitive, social, physical. The African aspect helps a child of color know that they’re great, that they come from a great lineage. It does not begin with slavery, that’s not where your story begins. Kids will say, “I know that I am great””.
This Brooklyn native’s journey towards creating Seneca Village Montessori began several years ago with the birth of her first son. Hodges was working in marketing, putting her Brooklyn College degree to good use, but felt her priorities changed.
Realizing that she always loved working with kids, she went for her Masters’ in Special Education at Touro College and then spent five years teaching special education in the New York public school system.
“Being in public schools, I noticed something going on,” Hodges says as she sits in Lincoln Terrace park, a block from her school. “There was a lack of confidence, a lack of positive sense of self. Children of color are confused,” she says, noting the current political climate. “Nothing is new, but it is more in the face and apparent. I wanted to do more than just sit and talk about it with friends over coffee.”
Drawing inspiration from Kamali Academy, an African-centered education created by Dr. Samori Camara, Seneca Village Montessori will teach students the history of Africa – the people, places, tribes, food and many cultures of the continent. They will also learn to speak Swahili and French (the latter is the main language spoken in West Africa). They will also learn about the African Diaspora in Brazil and the Caribbean.
“If the kids come from any of these places,” Hodges says. “They’ll be encouraged to bring in a piece of their culture. We want kids to be exposed to the rich and diverse cultures they are a part of.” Teachers and elders will be called Baba (Father) or Mama (Mother) by the watoto (children).
Aside from the African-centered curriculum, there will be concentrations in traditional subjects. They include math, English Language Arts, science, and the history and cultures of other countries and continents – all from a Montessori perspective.
“It will be hands-on, and self-correcting where they’ll learn from their mistakes,” says Hodges. “Kids become so excited. That’s what I love about Montessori. They find what they have a passion for.”
But don’t expect tablets to be used by this school right away. “It’s not used in Montessori,” Hodges explains. “[The students] are supposed to explore with senses. Technology comes later on.”
Seneca Village Montessori will serve children from ages 3 to 6, all in mixed-age classes. Each of the three classrooms will have no more than 12 students, which means the school is expecting to have 36 students by the time it opens in January. The classes will be run by a lead teacher and an assistant teacher, and there is room for parent volunteers to teach the students various subjects, such as African drumming, nutrition and so on.
“We’re definitely hiring,” Hodges says. “The teachers have to be certified by New York. It is very difficult to find staff. I want more than just a teacher.”
What Hodges wants for her school is to be an extension of the home. She wants the parents, teachers, and students to all come together as one since she believes education is part of the community. The very name of her school – Seneca Village – comes from the 19th-century community of free blacks at what is today Central Park.
“It was a successful community,” she smiles. “And I want the school to reflect that success. People work and came together. I want to build this same community.”
Although Montessori schools have a reputation for being pricey, Hodges’ school will cost only $11,000 a year. She plans to set up scholarship funds to allow students to come for free. Her ultimate goal is to have her school be free for all, as well as having it someday go all the way up to high school.
But for now, Hodges is making plans for her new school. She has written a request to the City’s Department of Parks to start an outdoor garden at Lincoln Terrace for her future students to plant and grow food. She is using her marketing skills to promote Seneca Village Montessori throughout Crown Heights. So far, she has ten enrollment applications.
So far, she has ten enrollment applications. There will be open houses at the school during three weekends in October – the 14-15th, 21-22nd, and 28-29th.
Hodges dreams that her school will be the start of something new. With parents getting more involved in their children’s education these days, she hopes that trend will impact the development of her students. “It takes a village to raise a child,” she adds. “Everyone has to be involved. The more they have support, it will build confidence.”