The principal is a hard-charger, the students and parents engaged, but to fully understand the excitement surrounding St. Paul’s plans for a public Montessori middle school, you need imagination.

A building’s walls must come down — entire classrooms and a library gutted — before Parkway Montessori and Community Middle School takes shape and opens this fall at the current home of L’Etoile du Nord French Immersion School on the city’s East Side.

Still ahead, too, is the hiring and training of teachers, and for that, principal Tim Hofmann is looking for passion and commitment. He is exploring the idea of requiring teachers to sign on for at least three years with the district’s new creative venture.

Once found only in private schools, the Montessori method allows students to learn at their own pace, gravitating to what interests them, in classrooms typically free of textbooks. Desks, too, give way to tables as students roam — working individually and with small groups — under the supervision of specially trained teachers.

There’s a lot riding on Parkway Montessori. The district will spend about $2.9 million for building design and renovation and has enlisted past leaders of Cincinnati’s pioneering public Montessori system to help train instructors — at a cost of $13,000 to $14,000 per teacher, Hofmann said.

“I want it to be the best Montessori middle school,” Mary Doran, a St. Paul school board member who has two daughters attending a district Montessori elementary school, said last week. “I truly believe it can be. And we need to hit the ground running as soon as the doors are open.”

Despite the tight time frame, she says she’s confident it can be done.

Montessori as innovation

Marta Donahoe, founder and former program director of Clark Montessori Junior and Senior High School in Cincinnati, said reform-minded districts have turned increasingly to Montessori programs as one way to innovate. She said that a carefully crafted program spanning the preschool to secondary-school ages can answer society’s call for education that addresses “the whole child,” helping students to be thoughtful and creative as they “find their place in the world.”

St. Paul is creating its new middle school as part of a districtwide reorganization that puts renewed emphasis on community schools but also provides elementary-to-secondary “pathways” for language immersion, arts, science and, now, Montessori programs.

But the reorganization also calls for grades 7-8 junior highs to be replaced by grades 6-8 middle schools, depriving Montessori sixth-graders of a leadership opportunity in a system that prides itself on community. Sixth-graders, for example, are called upon now to assist fourth-graders in grades 4-6 clusters. They lend a hand with kindergartners, too.

Donahoe, co-director of the teaching program that will aid St. Paul’s effort, said she favors the junior high model, but says a middle school move is a “compromise” that has worked for some districts. Visitors should still expect to find multi-age groupings, thematic curriculum and vibrant physical environment, she said.

“It’s a pretty dynamic and interesting place to observe,” Donahoe said.

Turnaround specialist

By all accounts, Hofmann, 41, has brought enthusiasm to an assignment for which speed is of the essence.

An arts enthusiast, he’s made a career of using creative ways to connect with kids. In the 1990s, he worked four years at Humboldt Junior High with former Montessori students who struggled with the elementary-to-secondary transition. Many misbehaved, he said, but earlier, “they were the stars of their school.”

At Park High School in Cottage Grove, Hofmann taught at-risk students, and again employed what he calls a Montessori-esque approach of “going with the kids’ strengths — what they wanted to do.” One student, he said, now is a teacher in Minneapolis.

Hofmann said last week that he was still awaiting enrollment projections for the new school. But at a recent meeting with parents, he told of speaking with people at a school fair after other booths were torn down and as janitors swept up. He also shared one secret: 30 students who live outside Parkway’s geographic zone, and who have no prior Montessori experience, have said they want to be a part of the new school.

Chris Lacher, who has identical twin daughters at Nokomis Montessori School, one of the district’s three Montessori elementary schools, said the middle school is needed as a bridge between the Montessori method of independent learning and the institutional learning that students can expect at the high school and college levels.

Of Hofmann, he said: “He is going to make it a success. I’m pretty darned sure of it.”

At L’Etoile du Nord last week, Hofmann had visitors imagine where the new cafeteria will be, and the performing arts space, and digital media center. The current library, or “Bibliotheque,” will become an arts room, and have a kiln in the corner, he said.

He’s excited, too, about an adjacent forest area, and its potential as an environmental lab.

But first things first. L’Etoile du Nord, which reopens elsewhere in the fall, has its last day of school on June 7. Then, for Parkway, its principal and its teachers, the race will really be on.