An Inside Look at Berthold Academy: Reston’s New Montessori Elementary and Middle School

A new school is coming to Reston this fall, offering Montessori education for inquisitive elementary and middle school students. As an admirer of the Montessori method, I was eager to learn more about this venture. I recently met with Garrett Wilhelm, the co-founder and Head of School of Berthold Academy, to learn more about this new school.

The Montessori approach to education was originally developed by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori. This method values each student as an individual with a unique learning style. Working within limits provided by teachers, students are free to choose learning activities of their interest, thereby enhancing discovery, curiosity, and intrinsic motivation. Students are supported in becoming self-guided seekers of knowledge. [source]

“Intrinsic motivation can be lost quickly in public schools,” Garrett observed. After 20 years of working at Sunset Hills Montessori School, he wanted help kids continue their autonomy and curiosity as they progressed through higher grades. He and his business partner, Rodney Berthold, developed a Montessori curriculum for ages 6-14, and opened Berthold Academy to a small group of students.

After the early success of their school, Garrett and Rodney have acquired a new location in Reston, and a much larger Berthold Academy will open in the fall of 2016 to students in first through eighth grades. They are currently enrolling students for the new school year.


Students of Berthold Academy during a recent visit to New York City (photo courtesy of Berthold Academy)

Multi-age classrooms, a common structure for Montessori schools, will be a standard feature at Berthold. Grades 1-3, 4-6, and 7-8 will be grouped together. This system will create a family structure that enables younger kids to learn from older kids, and helps older kids gain confidence and responsibility as they serve as role models.

Academic programs will include several hands-on materials, including math taught with shapes, beads, and other physical items. Manipulative materials such as wooden puzzle maps will be used in geography and history. Language instruction will emphasize reading, creative writing, word study, and research skills. Middle school students will work with members of the community to learn more about areas of their particular interest, such as 3D printing, music, coding, or art.

Practical life education is a valued part of the Montessori method, with students cleaning classrooms, preparing snacks and meals, and caring for plants and animals. Students will also volunteer regularly in the community.

Some of the most fascinating aspects of the school will include its specialized curriculum, including yoga, meditation, and mindfulness, taught be certified yoga instructor Jessica Simpson. A music production program will be taught by a DJ, in which children will learn to play music in their preferred styles, and use technology to mix and record their songs. IT and programming will be taught by IFormBuilder CEO Sze Wong, who will guide students to fluency in javascript and html.


The new location of Berthold Academy, shown before the upcoming additions of a garden and new playground

Garrett and I walked around the grounds of the new location as he explained the plans for this summer’s renovations. The area currently occupied by playground equipment will become a garden, where Reston chef (and former contestant on Food Network Star) Emilia Cirker will lead the students in a farm-to-table gardening curriculum. Students will learn how to grow, harvest, and cook their own organic produce.

During recess, students can choose to work in their garden or play on the playground or lawn. New playground equipment will be installed this summer. There will also be outdoor teaching areas on the lawn, and a patio for lunch or independent study activities. The school’s property borders on the Hidden Creek Golf Course, so students and staff will have scenic views to enjoy during their time outdoors.

If you’d like to visit Berthold Academy to see its new, expanded location, and learn more about its elementary and middle school programs, plan to attend the open house on Saturday, May 7, 2016 at 10am.


Garrett Wilhelm, Berthold Academy’s co-founder and Head of School, on the grounds of the school’s new location

I spoke with Garrett Wilhelm, co-founder and Head of School, for more insight into Berthold Academy’s philosophy and curriculum:

Modern Reston: Please tell us a bit about yourself and your background. How did you get involved in Montessori education?

Garrett Wilhelm: I grew up on South Lakes Drive and will always consider myself a Restonian. I worked for Reston Day camp many years ago and met a few campers who stuck out as well rounded, well behaved, and well cultured children. I was impressed by their knowledge of a wide range of subjects and respect for themselves and others. I asked their parents what they were doing to raise such amazing kids and their simple response was, Montessori education.

That fall I started a job part time at a law firm in their collections department and quickly realized it wasn’t meant for me! I left that position to take a job at Sunset Hills Montessori school located in Reston. It is there I began my almost 20 year career as a Montessori educator and eventually Director.

MR: What do you consider the benefits of the Montessori method over more traditional educational systems?

GW: Traditional and public education requires students to fit a “norm” in their methods of learning. Every child is different yet we expect them to very quickly learn to memorize, regurgitate, and produce. It is to me nothing more then a game. Every child is born with an intrinisic motivation to learn. As they approach grade school that motivation very quickly dies out. This is because every child learns differently and the traditional and public education demands conformity.

Montessori education centers on the child providing a proven system of advanced and individualized curriculum. We objectively observe the child engaging in apparatus and curriculum to identify their strengths and use them to excite other areas of the classroom. This keeps the child engaged in their learning. With engagement comes advancement.


Students of Berthold Academy during a visit to Lockheed Martin Space Experience Center (photo courtesy of Berthold Academy)

MR: How did you develop the idea to create a Montessori school for elementary and middle school students?

GW: There are at last count 57 Montessori schools in the Northern Virginia area. Only 4 provide Elementary programs and even fewer have Middle School. Berthold Academy is the first in the area to focus solely on Elementary and Middle School.

Typically a Montessori school opens with Primary aged children (3-6) due to the fact that there is a higher need for infant to six-year-old care. For this reason, Elementary programs rarely get the focused time, effort, and money to provide the best education attuned to the age group of 6-14.

MR: What would a typical school day be like for Berthold students? How would it differ from a typical day at a public school?

GW: A typical school day would be for a child to arrive to us in the morning by 8:30am. At this time we have a student led “morning meeting” This is the time during the day for the students to acknowledge others for great work, to reflect on the day before, and to talk about what the day will look like.

Following the morning meeting, the students will begin what we call “normalized work period.” It is at this time the child is engaged in lessons, project based assignments, focus groups, and one on one’s — basically our core curriculum.

We then have either indoor or outdoor recess depending on the weather for the day. Following recess we head in for lunch. In the afternoon we get back to work, with more in depth, multi-student lessons given.

MR: Berthold Academy describes itself as a school for the gifted and talented. Could you describe the admissions standards and procedures? How will Berthold address the needs of gifted students?

GW: Berthold’s goal is to redefine the “gifted and talented” label. Every student has both a gift and a talent. We define a child’s gifts and talents by their engagement in their work. If a child is engaged, their gifts shine and their faults are challenged and improved. We want our students to recognize their strengths and use those to improve on their weaknesses.

MR: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

GW: Berthold Academy’s mission is to provide the highest quality Montessori based education serving elementary through middle school aged children. We are the first school if it’s kind in the area and look forward to bringing a new and exciting private school option to families in Reston and beyond.

Many thanks to Garrett Wilhelm for giving us some insight into Berthold Academy!

Berthold Academy is located off Sunset Hills Road in Reston, and is currently enrolling for the 2016-2017 school year and 2016 summer camp. Refer to their website for information about programs and admissions.

If you’re interested in Montessori preschools and kindergartens, here are some of Reston’s options for young children:

Reston Montessori School

Community Montessori School

Sunset Hills Montessori School

Children’s House Montessori School

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