Upper School

Your student pushes himself toward ever advancing mastery in upper school as he prepares for a confident lift-off to college and an authentic, fulfilling life beyond.

A fully engrossing college-prep, Montessori school with an IB Diploma Programme? To those just getting to know Montessori education and the International Baccalaureate continuum, this series of descriptors can seem surprising — even incongruous — at a glance. But as you get to know MSR and our real-life learning approach, the synergy of this combination makes perfect sense.

In some ways, Upper School at MSR looks exactly like what you would expect to see at any high school. Our students tackle advanced course work, take challenging exams, perform large-scope research and writing projects, compete in varsity athletics, participate in a distinguishing array of extracurricular studies and activities in languages, arts, and technology. And for good reason — these experiences are essential to your student’s overall readiness for university-level work. The difference: at MSR, we emphasize more than academic readiness. Your student meets and exceeds advancing academic benchmarks as part of a more complete and balanced approach to college (and life) preparation.

Our Montessori philosophy and approach (as well as our optional IB Diploma track) ensures not only that your child is academically prepared for the rigors of college but also that she launches into her adult life confident in who she is and comfortable in how she relates to peers and adults, fully aware of her greatest strengths and talents, equipped to pursue her passions with purpose, and thoroughly capable of independently managing and directing her own work.

As the world opens up before her, we apply all that we know about adolescent development in general and about your child in particular to make sure these years ignite her unique passions and fuel them with the academic, social, emotional, and other real-life skills she needs to succeed. Because at MSR, she’s not just preparing for the future, she’s practicing a way of life now that she’ll carry with her into college and life beyond.

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Third Plane of Development

(Grades 7 to 12)


During the Third Plane of Development (ages 12–18), students move from focusing on the “What?” questions of early childhood and the “Why?” questions of their elementary years to the “How?” questions of adolescence and early adulthood: How do I apply what I’ve learned so far? How do I fit in? How do I contribute and achieve my best? How do I channel my passions into my higher purpose? How will I make my mark? They’re ready to actively explore and discover their unique place in society and to test their unfolding sense of self in the external world: Who am I as a thinker, a maker, a colleague? Who am I as a friend, a collaborator, a contributor, a leader? Who am I as a fully engaged member of society?

To take on this work, your student needs:

  • more space — both physical and social — apart from parents to safely exert her expanding independence (Dr. Montessori especially emphasizes the importance of outdoor spaces where students can explore while feeling connected to and grounded in nature);
  • more opportunities to discover and express herself through authentic and creative work, healthy social interactions, and even financial self-sufficiency;
  • more external structures and assessments to support self-management and -organization (e.g., letter grades, a bell schedule, a subject-specific rotation of courses in Middle School, followed by regional competitions, national exams, workplace evaluations in Upper School);
  • more occasion to test and evaluate herself and take on more responsibility in the world (i.e., real-world internships, independent community service projects, other leadership roles beyond home and school).

* While Maria Montessori never officially designed a post-elementary educational curriculum, MSR’s Middle and Upper Schools build upon the thinking she shared about adolescents’ particular developmental needs, and embody the time-proven Montessori philosophy and values.

Upper School Course of Study

As at every level, MSR seeks to remove the artificial barriers that tend to separate “school work” from its authentic context — life!

While your student masters all the traditional subjects through our interdisciplinary curriculum at MSR, he also applies his academic learning through real-world projects (which, as life experience teaches us, are by nature interdisciplinary, personal, and interpersonal), so that every school day helps him grow his intellect, develop his humanity, and strengthen his sense of autonomy.

Take, for instance, our students’ yearlong “Engineering Structures” project. We begin not with a set of geometry theorems to practice, architectural histories to study, and physics laws to memorize. We begin by asking your student to interpret the idea of structure. In Art he plans and builds a model of a house, engaging his full imagination and interest. In Math, he applies ratios and geometrical formulas to determine square areas and circumferences of his proposed structure — cubes, cylinders, ellipses, and irregular polygons — and the measurements of his interior and exterior walls. In Humanities, he studies scale and learns to read contour maps. Where is the best place to build? What are the traditions, customs, and materials considerations of building on this or that piece of land? How will his house affect the neighborhood, energy resources, or existing animal habitats? He examines the earth’s terrain and learns about erosion and other natural forces that affect the environment and creates models of the land and the home he’s designed. In Science, he examines the structural integrity inherent in specific materials, testing samples of timber, brick, cement, stone, and metals in order to determine their load capacity and durability.

And learning isn’t limited to the usual academic subject areas. Consider just a few of the supra-academic skillsets your student develops in this single project. He calculates the real-world costs of his building project, balancing his dream outcomes with his practical limitations and employing self-discipline, organization, and prioritization. He applies design thinking to creative problem-solving. He consults with experts, exercising personal initiative and self-confidence. He considers the competing needs and desires of his friends, family, and community and reconciles them with his own values, preferences, and ideas, developing empathy and skills in diplomacy and conflict resolution. He manages the entire complex, long-term project, gaining self-awareness and practicing collaboration, planning, and persistence.

In other words, in MSR’s Upper School, your student begins to master the crucial-to-happiness life skills that many young people authentically encounter for the first time post-college. And he gains this experience in ways that fully integrate with and strengthen his academic studies.

Through Intersessions, internships, community service, the college search and application process, and other opportunities for learning beyond the classroom, your student develops essential life skills, building competence and confidence (not to mention his résumé!) in preparation for his next experiences in college and beyond. These distinctive aspects of our program — deeply integrated with academic learning in traditional subject areas — exemplify the Third Plane principles of the Montessori approach.


Twice a year the regular curriculum pauses for Intersession, a one-week period when students — accompanied by MSR teachers, staff members, and sometimes parents — participate in full-immersion, interdisciplinary studies. Intersessions introduce your student to new experiences, places, people, and ideas that spark what often become lifelong passions. Some are offered year after year, while others are newly designed to meet students’ unique interests.

A sampling of Upper School Intersession projects:

  • Literary Journal – Research the lit mag market (both print and online), develop your own criteria for what makes a successful literary magazine, then create, solicit, and evaluate content for our very own publication, gaining practical experience in editing, layout, and production, as well as in publicizing and promoting the finished product.
  • Robotics – Explore the origins, applications, and future of robotics and then put the fundamentals of robot mechanisms and dynamics into action! Collaboratively design, build, and program robots that respond to light, motion, sound, or other human-machine interfaces.
  • App Design – Create an engaging mobile app design from start to finish, working through the design thinking process to develop and explore your original app idea and building the technical proficiency and planning skills that take your idea to finished product.
  • Food Blog – Learn about all that goes into starting and running a successful blog business. What are the best blog platforms? How do you brand your blog? How do you increase traffic with SEO? How can you generate income? Together, students write, design, photograph, code, market, and — oh, yeah! — cook for their own food blog.
  • Photography – Practice the art and science of photography in the digital age! You learn the timeless principles of lighting, composition, and perspective and also the technical tools for controlling exposure, shutter speed, aperture, and photo editing.


The Triangle is home to an abundance of colleges, universities, nonprofits, and business ventures of all shapes and sizes, from start-ups to publicly traded companies. (In fact, in 2014, Raleigh was named the number one city for business and careers by Forbes Magazine.) MSR makes the most of this concentration of highly regarded educational institutions and innovative businesses around us, offering our upper school students extraordinary opportunities for real-world collaborations and preparation.

While internships officially take place during the junior and senior years, one day per week for 16-week periods, students actually begin preparing for them long before. During 9th and 10th grade, they research their interests and passions, create their résumés, learn to network in their community, and participate in mock interviews, ultimately securing their internships during their sophomore year.

Your student might participate in investigating the physics of diagnostic medicine in a radiology lab. She might join a team of technologists at an investment firm where she helps develop a database, perform systems analysis, and design and develop new software applications. She might apply her artistic skills in an internship with a marketing firm, assisting in the creation of real content for professional blogs, websites, and advertisements.

Through the internship experience — from preparation through performance —students not only gain valuable insight and experience in the world of work in their areas of interest, they have opportunities to apply their in-school theoretical learning to real-world situations and, conversely, to discover new motivations to fuel their academic inquiries.

This program perfectly exemplifies the Third Plane manifestation of the Montessori approach, combining mastery of academic learning and the development of essential life skills — preparing students fully for their next experiences in college and beyond.


Many high schools offer community service and leadership programs. The MSR difference: Our entire program — for students from 18 months old to 18 years old — is designed to cultivate a sense of personal and social responsibility and genuine engagement in service. In other words, it’s not just something our students do, it’s a part of who we are together as a community.

Our mixed-age classrooms prepare students to work collaboratively, to master their lessons in order to teach them to others, to look for and foster skills and strengths in their peers, and to tend to their responsibilities and communities. As students advance at MSR, leadership opportunities exponentially increase. In Upper School, this means that your student not only practices leadership and service in his home and school communities; he is expected to begin making a positive impact in the wider world.

Starting in their freshman and sophomore years, students must complete 50 hours of service; in their junior and senior years, this grows to 75 hours of service per year. This work doesn’t merely signal the high value MSR places on service to the community, it plays a valuable role in galvanizing your student’s sense of self at this age, his sense of responsibility, generosity, and empathy. In both whole-school service activities and in service projects of his own design — improving marine habitats with an environmental organization, tutoring younger students, volunteering at a local hospital, organizing and participating in a charity run, building and populating new beehives, or other self-constructed commitment to community — your student forges a connection between his advancing talents and interests and his maturing self and social consciousness.

Upper School Environment

The Prepared Environment is an essential aspect of our pedagogy and curriculum at every level, specifically designed to meet the changing needs of your student as he grows and matures.


In Upper School, we give your student the space she needs — literally! Set amidst 40 acres of forest, streams, and wildlife, MSR’s Brier Creek Campus provides the ideal environment for students in the Third Plane of Development. Our natural surroundings provide expansive space for experiential learning and quiet reflections as your student performs scientific field studies, raises her environmental awareness, loses herself in a great book, stages an outdoor performance, or participates in community service.

Meanwhile, indoors, our Upper School forms the lively new hub of activity on our Brier Creek Campus. Our students inhabit and help create vibrant, start-up-like workspaces — classrooms, labs, and other collaborative areas — that support the natural flow of focused learning and vigorous discussion within and beyond the walls of the classroom.


Your upper schooler doesn’t just need physical space, he needs a social space that allows plenty of room for him to broaden his sense of identity and his sphere of influence, where he can express his opinions and ask hard questions, master healthy collaboration and participate in spirited competition with many different kinds of people.

At MSR, with a student-teacher ratio of 10:1, an average class size of 14 – 16, and a target cohort size of 75 students, we strive to balance the variety, diversity, and opportunities that greater numbers allow with the mentorship, free space, tailored learning experiences, and personal connections that only smaller class sizes can ensure. A well-balanced cohort means your student develops the capacity to appreciate and collaborate with different kinds of people, since it precludes the development of look-, act-, and think-alike cliques so common in larger school environments. And not only does your student develop close relationships with an incredibly diverse group of peers, he also connects personally with his teachers who are his mentors, advisors, and friends.

In other words, your upper school student is surrounded by a community of adults and peers that meets his need for belonging, inspires him toward ever greater independence and personal discovery, and supports him as he navigates his relationships and growing academic responsibilities.


Perhaps the most vital aspect of our learning environment, palpable the moment you arrive on campus, might also be the most difficult to describe. It’s not something you can easily point to: a place, a program, a policy. Rather, it’s a mindset — a community-wide belief in the capacity of our students to set and achieve their own goals; seek out big, meaningful challenges; both fail and succeed spectacularly and safely; and thus learn lessons so deeply that they inform their lives forever.

Over time in this environment, through both practice and osmosis, your student develops the MSR mindset, too. She learns to approach every challenge first with the assumption that she can do it — design a new app, research and write a biography, invest money in stocks, interpret an Old English poem, run 400 meters in under a minute (whatever “it” is) — with an ever growing sense of her strengths and how she learns best.

She may not know how yet, but she knows from experience that she’s capable of learning how to do anything, that with hard work and persistence no problem is too big to take on, and that grappling with complex, interesting problems is part of what brings joy and meaning to work and life.

Upper School Pedagogy

MSR provides a truly complete course of study that integrates real-life learning into every subject area and every subject area into real-life learning.

This means that in English courses, your student annotates and dissects texts that intentionally connect with his Humanities studies in ways that raise complex and engaging questions — around social change, progress, immigration, survival, peace and justice, the very nature of knowledge, language, and and creativity — and then pursues open-ended projects, driven by his own genuine and advancing questions: Why do we need laws and how do we create and change them? How do natural resources affect human migration and power dynamics? Why does art matter?

It means that in our science labs, he isn’t just memorizing the facts; he’s observing and exploring the interconnectedness of living and nonliving systems — from the structure of a single cell to the massive forces that move oceans, make mountains, and send ships into space. And as he masters and exceeds state and national standards, he also develops hypotheses based on his own burning questions — How long can a zip-line be? What forms of life can survive in total darkness? Can robots exhibit real emotions? — and then he designs (rather than just performs) collaborative experiments, and reflects (rather than just reports) on his findings.

In short, the most memorable and meaningful learning happens when your student (and her questions, interests, and experiences) are at the center of a rigorous, interdisciplinary curriculum — even, or perhaps especially, as she tackles more advanced work. This kind of teaching requires the most masterful, most prepared, most actively engaged teachers.

Trained in our time-tested Montessori approach, MSR’s expert teachers plan for and continuously guide learning experiences that demand personal initiative and independent thinking from your student. And as she pursues answers to her own questions, her teachers help her to acquire the necessary knowledge and skillsets and then apply them in memorable and meaningful ways, supportively challenging her toward ever deeper inquiry, genuine engagement, and constant skill-building.

Even as this approach builds adult independence and growing intellectual, social, and emotional sophistication in our upper schoolers, it also keeps alight the imagination and wonder-filled energy of youth, ensuring that your student learns to fuel (rather than replace) her personal fascinations with ever more focused, vigorous, and disciplined study.

IB Diploma Programme

As a compelling complement to our Montessori program, with its global perspective, emphasis on self-reflection and self-directed learning, and integration of international and social focus on peace and justice, MSR offers the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme as an option for grades 11 and 12.

The Montessori School of Raleigh is an official IB World School for the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme.

IB Courses

Group 1: Studies in language and literature (Language A)
Group 2: Language acquisition (Language B)
Group 3: Individuals and societies
Group 4: Sciences
Group 5: Mathematics
Group 6: The arts

MSR is the first and only Montessori high school in the state and the only independent school in the Triangle to offer this highly regarded curriculum, a two-year program that emphasizes critical thinking, rigorous research and exams, thesis writing, a “Theory of Knowledge” course, and other advanced college preparation.

Throughout our upper school program, MSR ensures that our high schoolers experience the same balance of rigor and guidance that defines our Montessori approach at every level. Instruction is tailored, as at every level, to follow student interests and aptitudes, while challenging them to stretch beyond their comfort zones. By maintaining this balance, MSR ensures that our students remain engaged, inspired, and excited about learning, leaning into the limits of their expanding abilities.

The IB Diploma Programme will open doors for our students. A recent study proves the value colleges see in this curriculum:

  • The average acceptance rate of IB Diploma Programme students into university/college is 22 percentage points higher than the average acceptance rate of the total population.
  • The acceptance rate of IB Diploma Programme students in the most highly selective institutions is between 3 and 13 percentage points higher compared to the total population’s acceptance rate.

We share these statistics, not to suggest that MSR fosters the kind of tightly structured, highly competitive learning environment normally associated with such metrics of success. MSR’s ambitions for our students is much more expansive. It is, however, meaningful that our optional IB Diploma track in 11th and 12th grades, integrated with our comprehensive Montessori program, will give our students an additional edge in their educations and in the college admissions process.

Click here to read the IB Assessment Policy

*Only schools authorized by the International Baccalaureate can offer any of its four academic programmes: the Primary Years Programme (PYP), the Middle Years Programme (MYP), the Diploma Programme or the IB Career-related Certificate (IBCC). For further information about the IB and its programmes, visit www.ibo.org

College Counseling

MSR students emerge thoroughly prepared for the all demands of a dynamic, competitive world. And it’s no wonder.

Your student has independently organized and managed her own complex academic projects, built her own solar panels, researched and reflected on the nature of knowledge and creativity, secured a real-world internship and experienced real-world workplaces, written and directed her own play, designed and launched a start-up, published a cookbook. She’s practiced revolutionary thinking, voiced insightful opinions, collaborated with others toward a common goal, exerted newfound independence beyond home and school.


The college search and application process is an integrated part of real-life learning — a major life event and a decision that challenges students to make use of all they’ve learned so far, intellectual, social, and emotional. That’s why college counseling begins in ninth grade at MSR, progressively preparing your student for application and admission to her best-fit colleges and universities.

My son went on to a very competitive college after MSR, and he’s doing incredibly well — not a single blip academically. Even though classes are bigger, he has that mentorship mindset from MSR, so he’s connecting with his professors and loving his classes. I think the only thing he didn’t expect was how much he would miss it here. –MSR parent

The International Baccalaureate Merit Scholarship

The International Baccalaureate Merit Scholarship recognizes an incoming 11th grade full IB Diploma student who has a proven record of academic excellence, demonstrated involvement in student leadership and who exhibits exemplary character. This scholarship will fund $5,000 a year for two years of the IB Diploma Program.

The Brier Creek Merit Scholarship

This scholarship recognizes an incoming 9th grade student who exhibits qualities of good character, potential for strong academic achievement and a passion for some area of study in the sciences, humanities, the arts, or technology. This scholarship funds $3,000 for the 9th grade, $4,000 for the 10th grade, and $5,000 a year for the 11th and 12th grade years.


MSR graduates—self-assured, make-it-happen, entrepreneurial thinkers—who have come to trust in themselves as masters of their own destinies and engineers of their own authentic, fulfilling lives are ready to take on any challenge—in college and beyond—and to pursue their brightest futures with confidence.