NewGate began as the fusion of two dreams: The school’s founder, Kitty Bravo, believed in the Montessori method of teaching, a developmental approach to learning, in which children choose their own projects and learn in a way tailored specifically to each child. Bravo’s then-husband, Steve Williams, had a passion for organic farming.
“He wanted to have an organic farm, and I wanted to have a school,” Bravo says. “So, we made the dream come true.”
In the early ’80s, Bravo and Williams purchased the almost five acres of land at 5237 Ashton Road, where they would build their school.
When NewGate opened in January 1984, Bravo taught lessons on the front porch of her home. NewGate began as a preschool with five students, ranging from 3 to 6 years old. Williams had an organic farm that the students used for hands-on projects.
Bravo and Williams remodeled the garage into a classroom and eventually added more buildings as the school grew. Bravo and Williams taught students environmentally-friendly methods, such as recycling and composting, long before the term “green” became mainstream.
By fall 1984, the school had 24 students, and by 1987, it expanded through second grade. Each year the school added a grade level.
In 1994, Tim Seldin, current headmaster and president of the Montessori Foundation, took NewGate under his wing. The Montessori Foundation is an international organization that works with thousands of Montessori schools to expand the advancement of a Montessori education.
“What I found was an organic farm run by two marvelous people,” says Seldin. “It was a school that was truly committed to teaching kids nonviolence, social justice, making a positive difference, holistic living and organic farming. There were many values that were present in the school that I felt were very admirable. Even though it was very small, I felt that there were many things about the school that make it very special.”
The master plan
Seldin and the Montessori Foundation developed a master plan for NewGate, which Seldin describes as a “labor of love.”
They hired Lorna McGrath in 1994 as an administrative assistant and bought 100 acres of land on State Road 72. They planned for students to participate in hands-on projects with organic farming and raising animals. They also envisioned a Montessori high school with an International Baccalaureate program and were committed to expanding enrollment.
Regarding the master plan, Seldin and the foundation always kept the students’ best interest on the forefront and kept in mind “education is a journey, not a race.”
Bravo left the school in 1997, when it had 160 students, to pursue a career in training teachers to become Montessori educators.
“Just because you have a dream, doesn’t mean you have to do it forever,” Bravo says. “I had always wanted to train teachers, so that is the direction I decided to go in, and it gave me a way to continue to come back to the school.”
The school continued to grow by approximately 50 students each year, until 2000, when enrollment hit a plateau of 300 students.
Parents voted to leave the Montessori Foundation and make the school private in 2000. In the next decade, student enrollment dropped and the school’s funds declined.
“In the 10 years (the Montessori Foundation) was gone, (NewGate’s) forward momentum stopped,” Seldin says. “It failed financially because of the economy, but, truthfully, it is not a big enough community to survive on the local population. The Montessori Foundation is an organization that has connections that open up doors for nonpublic schools that normally would not be here.”
The foundation returned at the request of the board of directors in 2010 and implemented a series of takeover transitions to get the school running smoothly once more.
Due to the school’s lack of funds and lack of development on State Road 72, the Montessori Foundation sold the 100 acres of land and abandoned the idea of a country school to refocus its energy and attention on the students.
There are 110 students enrolled at NewGate, and the school is becoming increasingly selective about admission. School administration hand picks families after getting to know them and chooses students who will stay with them for the rest of their education.
“It’s kind of like dating,” Seldin says. “You want to have someone who is compatible with the school and wants to be here. It’s not right for everyone, and we wouldn’t want it to be.”
The school is working on adding an International Baccalaureate program and high school students have internships so they can graduate with real-world work experience. Seldin envisions having a downtown campus where students can interact with their community on a daily basis. He believes the school will one day have undergraduate and graduate programs.
“What makes it special: It’s in one of the most unusual cities in the world,” Seldin says. “I feel very passionate about Sarasota. Intellectual and artistic life of Sarasota is not typical. This is human-sized city, where a highly successful, affluent family who wants to come to us would want to live.
“Between climate, unpretentiousness, safety, beauty, natural environment and artistic and intellectual life, what more could you ask? Now, with a national board, we can create a real gem and we are slowly doing that looking 100 years out.”
January 1984 — Kitty Bravo and Steve Williams open Countryside Montessori School for children ages 3 to 6.
Fall 1986 — The school adds a second classroom.
1993 — The school expands through sixth grade.
1993 — NewGate forms its board of directors.
1994 — The Montessori Foundation takes Countryside Montessori School under its wing and renames it NewGate School. NewGate was chosen as the name because it was a new school. GATE is an acronym for Global Awareness through Education. In addition, they thought that Gate was appropriate because the school is a gateway to knowledge and Sarasota has many neighborhoods with gate in the name, i.e. Gulf Gate, Southgate, etc.
1996 — NewGate’s first
middle school opens.
1996 to 1998 — The Montessori Foundation purchases 100 acres of land and lays out a master plan for NewGate.
1997 — Bravo leaves school to train other teachers as Montessori educators.
2000 — NewGate parents leave the Montessori Foundation and make it into a private school.
2004 — The first senior graduates NewGate.
2010 — NewGate Board members voted for the Montessori Foundation to take NewGate back as a lab school.
The Montessori Method
The Montessori method of teaching is an educational approach developed by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori. There is an emphasis on independence and freedom within limits. Teachers are not traditional classroom lecturers, but more like guides who help students with projects. Students do not have standard classrooms separated by age levels and hour-long classes. They often mingle with each other and work on projects together in uninterrupted blocks of work time. Teachers encourage a child’s natural development academically and socially by having them choose their own projects and studying that topic thoroughly. Students are not given facts from textbooks but rather learn about topics in their own way. This method focuses solely on the student and what one particular individual needs to learn and succeed.