The 11 children preparing for their morning snack at Adams International School create a circle with benches and brightly colored child-size Adirondack chairs. They will eat their snacks — anything from fresh green beans to cinnamon bread — on fine china.
"The children know to do things on their own," explains Tamra Adams, the school's co-founder along with her husband, Doug. "When they finish their snack, it's their responsibility to clean up. They go over to the washstand to wash the dishes."
The fact that the kids set the table with silverware, china dishes, damask napkins and silver goblets is not the only unusual thing at the new Montessori school — Goochland County's first. Set on the Adamses' farm in Goochland Courthouse, the school opened Sept. 14.
The schoolhouse's design pays homage to rural life. People in the community have even started donating animals, from chickens to miniature horses, to the school. The first floor includes a working kitchen and parent-education library as well as a room where children do laundry and a large open schoolroom with a 55-gallon aquarium. "The kids take care of the fish tank as well as the birds, rabbits and plants we have," Tamra says.
Child-size cabinets in the room are arranged by subject matter. For example, one of the cabinets holds several individual wooden trays with flashlights and batteries. "The children must learn to change the batteries," Tamra explains.
Everything in the room, from bookcases to artwork, is scaled to child height. It even contains a calming water feature and child-size showers, good for washing off dirt after children have been harvesting vegetables from the garden out back. This summer students harvested ears of corn. Many had never seen corn in its natural wrapper. "They were in disbelief," Tamra recalls. "They asked, ‘Are you sure there's corn in there?' When they tore back the husks, they shouted, ‘I found my corn!' We cooked it and added it to our lunch table that day."
Tamra and Doug Adams moved to Southview Farm in May 1998, when Doug owned The Country Vintner, a wine distribution company. They began renovating the pre-Civil War farmhouse on the property as well as a cottage and small greenery that they converted into The Little Red Schoolhouse. The building now also serves as Adams International's library. The couple also transformed an abandoned barn into an office before turning it into their new school. "The place was severely neglected," Tamra recalls. "We gave new life to old buildings."
A former elementary-school teacher, Tamra started homeschooling seven of her 12 children, now aged 5 to 31, on the farm, but she had bigger ideas in the back of her mind. "I have known I would open a school for as long as I can remember," she says. As an Army brat, Tamra attended 17 different schools by ninth grade. "I can tell you something about schools."
She learned about the Montessori method after several of her children were enrolled in a local program in the 1990s. Montessori teaching follows the interest of the child. "It lets that be the creator of the curriculum instead of external curriculum created by adults," explains Chris Cappiello, a Montessori-trained teacher at the school. "This curriculum [at Adams] is created by natural development of the child and the child's current interests."
When Goochland County Supervisor Malvern "Rudy" Butler, who represents District 4, heard about the school proposal, he immediately saw it as a benefit to county residents. "People have been sending their kids out of the county for that kind of school," he says. He felt even more confident when no one had any objections to the school. "That's unusual. We recently had a zoning case for a church, and we had all kinds of people objecting."
On the Ground Floor
Tamra's home-teaching schedule was interrupted in 2004 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She is cancer-free today, proclaiming that she "didn't have time for cancer. I have been a survivor since the moment I was diagnosed."
The diagnosis didn't lessen her will to open a school, and when Doug decided to sell his wine-distribution business last year, the idea began to take serious shape.
"After nearly 20 years of importing fine wine from around the world, I imagined I would be spending my retirement on the banks of the Arno River in Florence, Italy," Doug says. "Instead, it appears that I will spend them on the banks of the James River in Goochland. Perhaps it's not as romantic, but it's certainly a more important way to spend my time."
After sliding painlessly through the county approval process, Tamra began marketing the school through word of mouth and Facebook. She also opened the property for a 10-week summer camp before the official opening of the school.
Tricia Dalton's 7-year-old son participated in the camp. "Blake had challenges last year when he was in first grade," Dalton explains. "Tamra started tutoring him in May, and we saw such a great improvement. He did so well in the summer camp."
Dalton, who describes her son as "very animated" in class, felt he needed more individualized attention than he was getting in a larger classroom. At first, she was concerned that Blake was older than most of the other students, who range from 3 to 7. His age, however, turned out to be an advantage. "He's taken a leadership role at the school," Dalton says. "He's helpful with the little ones. He has two older brothers, so he hasn't been in that role before."
She believes that Blake is "where he needs to be now. He's such a happy little guy now. He loves the school. It's hard to get him to come home."
The school doesn't dole out grades or bolster competition among students. "Research suggests that when young children learn without the burden of letter or number grades, the learning is more meaningful, and the students are more willing to choose more challenging work," Tamra says. "Homework, grades and SOLs represent completely different mindsets than learning for the love of learning. We neither grade nor de-grade. We want to put the child back in childhood."
Teacher Cappiello says he saw the school as "an opportunity to be on the ground floor of a new school and to stay faithful to Montessori [methods]. Montessori schools can sometime get away from the original philosophy because they are trying to compete with other private schools."
A 2006 study in the journal Science, comparing outcomes of children at a public inner-city Montessori school with children who attended traditional schools, indicates that the method created by Maria Montessori at the turn of the 20th century often leads to better social and academic skills. Tamra isn't surprised. "I firmly believe in the Montessori method of learning," she says. "When properly executed, the method clearly respects the child."
Looking forward, Tamra and Doug hope to add an international tricycle track outside of the school. The track will provide interactive lessons in geography and cultural awareness. For example, the playground will include a mock Eiffel Tower, an African tree house and a Native American teepee. "That's in the planning stages now," Doug says. The idea behind the school and the track is to teach children the social and cultural aspects of education as well as the academics of learning. "We hope that with Adams International School, we can play some small role in creating that first generation of people who give back to the earth," he adds.
The couple plans to open an elementary section of the school in addition to the primary section next year. Older students will study in a second-floor space that adjoins the cultural-arts room where children can study dance and take music lessons that include Kindermusik (a teaching method that develops the music skills of children in an age-appropriate manner) and violin classes in the Suzuki method.
The school has 11 students and more on the waiting list. "Because we are a year-round school and because each learning plan suits the individual, our goal is to grow the classes in stages," Tamra says. The school, now in the accreditation process, hopes to seek recognition as a model school.
"Tamra is building a world-class Montessori school," says Tim Seldin, president of The Montessori Foundation and chair of The International Montessori Council. "Starting a school in this economy and doing what appears to be an exemplary job is something that needs to be commended."
Tom Arkwright and his wife had little knowledge of the Montessori method of learning before enrolling their 3½-year-old daughter, Adrianna, in Adams International. "When we saw what it was, we realized this was the perfect place for our daughter," says Arkwright, who acknowledges that Adrianna can be independent and strong-willed. "That could get you into trouble in some places. Tamra has a way of making Adrianna want to join the group. I think that eliminates a fight because all of a sudden it was Adrianna's idea."
Adrianna has been vocal about her affinity for the school. "She seems so at ease and comfortable with her life," Arkwright says. "She didn't want to go to the other school we had her in before Adams. Now she says, ‘Come on, let's go. We don't want to be late.' That is quite amazing."