Student entrepreneurs to launch schools in urban areas

By Jasmine White
Birmingham, Ala.

While studying abroad in South Africa during their junior year, Princeton students Jason Warrington ’13 and Greg Groves ’13 found themselves engaged in deep discussions about what they were seeing—for instance, a homeless man sitting outside a BMW dealership. Looking back, Warrington described the poverty as completely “in your face.”

These discussions made Groves and Warrington resolve to do something about poverty here in their own country. And so, this summer, having graduated from college, the pair, along with Christian Smutherman ’14 and Amina Yamusah ’13, is working to start Freestyle Montessori, a not-for-profit organization that aims to provide educational opportunities in urban areas.

Their initiative is being supported by the Keller Center’s eLab Summer Accelerator Program, a 10-week Princeton University program that serves as a platform for student entrepreneurs. It provides funding, workspace and mentorship to help students develop businesses. Participants in the program are chosen through an intensive application process. Warrington and Groves will present their ideas to a group of investors and innovators on Wednesday, and they hope to subsequently make this project into their full-time careers.

Both men, now 22, attended Montessori schools during their elementary years, Greg in his native Ohio, and Jason in Lower Merion, an affluent town near Philadelphia. Asked how they would identify their financial standing, they described it as “middle income.” Groves’ father is a lawyer, and his mother is a judge. Warrington’s father is a civil rights lawyer, and his mother is the CEO of the Girl Scouts of Greater New York.

“Montessori stresses independence,” Warrington said. The philosophy aims to give students what he calls “drive.” Montessori schools’ style of teaching greatly differs from traditional methods. It allows students to focus on their own personal interests and study them with an independence not seen in most public school classrooms. Groves described the Montessori learning environment as being “more like a living room than a classroom.”

Though their program will be open to all races and genders, it will be located in urban areas, and will focus on minorities. (Warrington and Groves are both black.) Freestyle Montessori will start off as a summer program and also will offer Saturday classes year-round, but Groves and Warrington hope to start a full-fledged network of Montessori charter schools sometime in the future. The program will target students in pre-K through sixth grade.

Groves in particular, who holds a sociology degree with a minor in African-American studies, spoke passionately about education. He mentioned the 40 percent graduation rate among black men in Ohio, and growing up in an area where he lived directly between “the haves and the have-nots.”

According to the Schott Foundation, from 2009 to 2010 only 52 percent of black males and 58 percent of males graduated from high school in the U.S, compared to 78 percent of white males. In New Jersey, the rate was 66 percent among Latino men and 63 percent among black men, but 90 percent among white men.

Warrington and Groves are jumping in without much prior experience. Both have acted as tutors and mentors, but neither has worked as a teacher. They plan to hire Montessori teachers, who will go through one week of intensive training before the program starts. Tuition will be charged but scholarships will be provided based on need.

The project may seem ambitious for recent college graduates, but Groves and Warrington are determined. Both feel they were given a leg up by attending Montessori schools, and now, Warrington said, they want to “extend the opportunities to others.”

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