Monday, February 19, 2001

Tristate embraces Montessori


Hands-on learning in great demand

By Andrea Tortora and Lori Hayes
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Claire Grosgogeat, 3, counts with beads at Summit Country Day Montessori School.
(Tony Jones photos)
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        Parents camp out overnight to get their children registered. Waiting lists are filled years in advance. Existing schools are under pressure to expand.

        The demand for Montessori schools in Greater Cincinnati has never been greater, making the education philosophy one of the most popular alternatives in Tristate schools.

        What makes Montessori teaching unique is its focus on promoting independence and teaching children through hands-on lessons.

        As proponents celebrate Montessori Education Week, they say the method's use will continue to expand despite the expense of starting new classes, which can total $20,000 just for materials.

        “Montessori today is enjoying a nice maturity,” Laura Saylor, Cincinnati Montessori Society president, said of the teaching method first introduced to Cincinnati in 1925.

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Clark High School teacher Bob Girton works with his 11th-grade class in the nation's first public Montessori high school.
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        “It doesn't seem as weird to people who haven't been exposed to it. Overall, the community has a better awareness of it.”

        That awareness is best seen in the demand for more Montessori classrooms.

        In 1969, there were 17 private Montessori schools in Cincinnati. The concept spread to public schools and today there are more than 60 Montessori schools in the Tristate.

        Montessori schools use the methods created by Italian doctor Maria Montessori. She opened her first school in Italy in 1907, where she used materials designed to help children learn by doing.

        Key to her ideas are the use of multiage classrooms and open environments.

        Cincinnati is recognized across the country as a hotbed for Montessori education, said Michael Eanes, national director of the American Montessori Society.

        “They've always been on the cutting edge,” he said.

        The city is home to a Montessori teacher education program at Xavier University, one of about 100 Montessori teacher prep programs in the country.

        “The reason we have five public Montessori schools in Cincinnati is because the demand is so great,” said Elizabeth Bronsil, director of Xavier's Montessori teacher program. “And even there, there are waiting lists.”

        To meet this demand, Cincinnati Public's Carson Montessori in Price Hill will move into a larger building this fall.

MORE COVERAGE
  • Web sites, books about Montessori
  • Q&A: A Montessori primer

        Clark Montessori in Hyde Park, the nation's first public Montessori high school, expects to hit an enrollment of 700 students in grades 7-12 in the next three years, far beyond its ideal capacity of 500 students.

        In Northern Kentucky, three new schools opened in the past three years, for a total of eight.

        The Tristate's newest elementary program is at Prince of Peace School in Covington. The program was started by three families who wanted their children to continue in a Montessori environment after kindergarten.

        Sharon Menke of Morningview is one of those parents. She favors Montessori education because of its noncompetitive environment that allows students to progress at their own pace.

        “They can move forward without waiting for everybody else,” said Mrs. Menke, whose daughter Paige, 8, attends Prince of Peace, and whose son, Walt, 3, attends Country Hills Montessori preschool in Erlanger.

Classrooms different

        Montessori classrooms differ from traditional classes. Rooms are stocked full of educational materials, from strings of beads used for counting to movable alphabets to cups and pitchers used in the “practical life area.”

        Students are responsible for their time, and for cleaning up after themselves. They move from one activity to another, without direction from the teacher.

        If they get hungry, they can grab a buddy, make themselves a snack and sit down and chat.

        “The expectations need to be very clear in a Montessori environment,” said Amy Lemon, a Prince of Peace teacher and a 1999 Xavier graduate. “(Students) can socialize as long as work is getting done. They have a lot of choice, as long as it's on their work plan.”

        Prince of Peace's Montessori program opened in 1999 with eight children in first through third grades. Tuition is $3,200 a year. The program grew to 23 students this year as a fourth-grade class was added. Plans call for adding a grade level each year through sixth grade.

        Montessori is not without its detractors.

        Critics say the Montessori environment is too rigid and controlled, while others argue it's not rigid enough. The method's heavy focus on academics and cognitive development doesn't always address children's developmental needs, opponents say.

        Other criticisms include teachers being too hands-off; children not being adequately evaluated (students don't receive letter grades); and students finding it difficult to transition to a traditional school setting.

        But Montessori proponents say its benefits go far beyond academics.

        It's also about teaching children to be socially conscious and emotionally mature, said Kathryn Harsh, whose daughters Mary Frances, 5, and Elizabeth, 3, attend Summit Country Day School in Hyde Park.

        “The social aspect is built into the day,” Mrs. Harsh said. “When you teach in a traditional setting you downplay a lot of that interaction.”

        Summit, where tuition runs $4,000 to $8,970 a year, serves 250 students ages 3-9. Its morning sessions are already full for the 2001-02 year.

        A Summit graduate herself, Mrs. Harsh decided to send her children there after teaching first grade for seven years in a traditional school.

        “Montessori is preparing them to be independent thinkers and learners,” she said. “They pick up so many skills I don't think they'd get in a normal preschool.”

Studying in the world

        When students reach high school, the Montessori materials become the world around them.

        At Clark Montessori in Hyde Park, field studies along the Appalachian Trail or on a Native American reservation in the Southwest are essential parts of the curriculum.

        Yet Maria Montessori never wrote detailed plans for educating older students.

        Since there are no universities that certify teachers for Montessori high school programs, Clark developed its own training. Teachers also must be experienced with the Montessori method.

        “We always ask ourselves, "What kind of adults do we want our kids to become?'” said Marta Donahoe, Clark's program director and one of three teachers who helped start the school seven years ago. “What we are doing is an experiment, but it's one with a lot of integrity.”

        Students appear to be thriving.

        In a recent philosophy class, students and teacher Bob Girton sat in a circle on the floor, discussing African tribes. In Bruce Weil's music theory class, seventh-graders practiced Beethoven's Fifth Symphony on steel drums. On a recent lesson on immigration, seventh-graders worked in teams, studying maps and geography.

        All students must complete 50 hours of community service a year to graduate.

        While some critics say this fluid style of education might not prepare students for college, the 23 Clark students who will graduate this year are finding otherwise.

        College admissions officers they talk to — at the University of Tampa, the University of Missouri, Calvin College and Northwestern — said they are impressed by the breadth of experiences the school offers.

        Chelsea Buncher, a freshman at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, the world around them.

        At Clark Montessori in Hyde Park, field studies along the Appalachian Trail or on a Native American reservation in the Southwest are essential parts of the curriculum.

        Yet Maria Montessori never wrote detailed plans for educating older students.

        Since there are no universities that certify teachers for Montessori high school programs, Clark developed its own training. Teachers also must be experienced with the Montessori method.

        “We always ask ourselves, "What kind of adults do we want our kids to become?'” said Marta Donahoe, Clark's program director and one of three teachers who helped start the school seven years ago. “What we are doing is an experiment, but it's one with a lot of integrity.”

        Students appear to be thriving.

        In a recent philosophy class, students and teacher Bob Girton sat in a circle on the floor, discussing African tribes. In Bruce Weil's music theory class, seventh-graders practiced Beethoven's Fifth Symphony on steel drums. On a recent lesson on immigration, seventh-graders worked in teams, studying maps and geography.

        All students must complete 50 hours of community service a year to graduate.

        While some critics say this fluid style of education might not prepare students for college, the 23 Clark students who will graduate this year are finding otherwise.

        College admissions officers they talk to — at the University of Tampa, the University of Missouri, Calvin College and Northwestern — said they are impressed by the breadth of experiences the school offers.

        Chelsea Buncher, a freshman at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C., graduated from Clark Montessori in 2000.

        “Montessori helped show me a balanced outlook on the world,” she said. “Learning how to budget my time was a huge thing. I didn't realize how much Montessori helped me with planning out projects.”

        Before enrolling at Warren Wilson, she took a semester off to travel to Central American, where she learned Spanish and volunteered in Guatemala and Nicaragua. “There is a community (at Clark) that is pretty rare to find anywhere else,” junior Leah Busch said.

        “There are real-world situations that we put ourselves into. The best way to learn things is to go out and do it.”

        Maria Montessori couldn't have said it better.

Web sites, books about Montessori
Q&A: A Montessori primer



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