What’s a community without kids? Harbor Town is home to a pair of unique schools, each facility blended into the waterside landscape as though that part of Mud Island had been created to hold it. The Maria Montessori School has a campus made up of three buildings, the first having opened in 1992 (when it was literally a one-room schoolhouse), the most recent in 2000. The Foreign Language Immersion Childcare Center (FLICC) opened in 1999 in the shadow of the A.W. Willis Bridge. They are shaping the lives of Memphians, regardless of the neighborhood these children call home.
Maria Schuermann-Cole founded her Montessori school in 1986 and originally borrowed space from St. Michael Catholic Church in East Memphis. But she felt a calling to Harbor Town shortly after her brother bought a home there. Schuermann-Cole convinced the development’s founder Henry Turley that a school was desperately needed and, in 1992, a charming yellow schoolhouse welcomed its first students. Today, as many as 125 children attend the school, ranging in age from 18 months to 14 years, all of them engaged in the open, creative Montessori method where hands-on applies to math, science, and especially nature (every classroom has outdoor space).
“My parents instilled a love for downtown,” says Schuermann-Cole, who grew up in Whitehaven. “The curriculum is built around the history of civilization; it’s all about those who came before us. You have the Nile, and here we have the Mississippi River. They wanted to get families down here, so we went to Henry with the plan and he told us he could find us a place.” The campus was placed near a pond, where students can learn to kayak before setting out in the nearby Wolf River harbor.
“We have a lot of families who moved [to Memphis] for St. Jude or International Paper,” notes Schuermann-Cole. “When they come here, this feels like home. It’s more cosmopolitan. And the diversity; you see every shade, hear every language. That’s what I love about this place.”
FLICC opened in 1999, the brainchild of Dawn Shute, at the time a Spanish teacher at Kirby High School. With downtown childcare limited to Calvary Place, Shute recognized a need, but added a bilingual component to her program that has come to flourish for the children (from 6 weeks to 5 years old) who occupy the school’s nine classrooms.
“Dawn realized teaching Spanish would be much easier if children could learn at an early age,” says Sue Bolding, who joined FLICC as director in 2006 and now owns the school. “Henry Turley believed in her, so he built this building specifically for this use.” Bolding oversees a staff of 20, with capacity for 92 children, each of them speaking Spanish — and Spanish only — throughout the school day.
“The Hispanic population in Memphis continues to grow,” emphasizes Bolding, but she explains a larger component to FLICC’s mission. “Language learning stimulates a part of the brain that we’re not used to having stimulated. It helps in thinking skills, as well as math, logic, and music skills. Most of the kids leave here for private schools, and I always hear from the schools’ directors that they are beyond prepared. All our teachers, even for infants, submit a lesson plan. There has to be a cognitive learning activity, a language-enhancement activity, and a gross- or fine-motor activity.”
Around half of the children attending FLICC live at Harbor Town, though a recent survey of parents showed 11 families live more than 15 miles away. The school has become a destination for these families, with the charms of the river community a significant bonus.
Speaking Spanish or English, indoors or outdoors, Memphis children are blooming at Harbor Town. You know the old cognitive riddle, nature or nurture? Why not the best of both?