Montessori schools mark 100 years of alternative learning

Juneau group touts program's innovative education methods

Posted: Sunday, January 07, 2007

A little more than 100 years ago, the first Italian woman to earn a medical degree founded a school in a Roman slum.

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It wasn't the setting that broke new ground; it was Maria Montessori's innovative approach to learning.

On Saturday, communities all over the world celebrated the centennial of "Children's House," the first Montessori school in a suburb called San Lorenzo. There are now 22,000 Montessori schools in more than 100 countries.

In Juneau, the Southeast Alaska Friends of Montessori decided that a "Glass Classroom" would be a fitting way to demonstrate how the programs work.

The transparent classroom at Nugget Mall was designed to allow people a view of the Montessori method.

"Montessori believes that every child deserves to be treated with respect and consideration," said Lupita Alvarez, director of the Juneau Montessori School. It is Montessori philosophy that children will learn to be respectful by being given respect.

Instead of dictating curriculum as public schools do, Montessori schools allow children to choose activities they enjoy and explore what interests them, said Alvarez.

"To the casual observer, it can look loosey-goosey, and to others it looks overly structured and uncreative," said Christine Trostel, a lead Montessori teacher.

"If one spends a little time looking deeper, one will see children actively making choices, working, solving problems, academic and social, participating in lessons in small and large groups and asking questions."

Juneau has two Montessori schools: the Juneau Montessori School, a private preschool on Douglas Island, and Montessori Borealis, a program within the public school system for elementary and middle-school children at both Glacier Valley Elementary School and Mendenhall River Community School.

The program started with 15 students in 1985 and has grown to 160 students ranging from preschool to eighth grade. There are students as young as 15 months in the program.

Tuition is $820 for toddlers and $770 for students enrolling at the preschool or kindergarten level. For children in public school, first through eighth grade, tuition is free.

"I first got involved in Montessori education in Juneau in 1984," said Catherine Fritz, a parent whose three sons were educated at Montessori schools.

"My oldest son was having a lot of trouble in a 'regular' day-care setting. He was very aggressive with a strong will and temper," Fritz said.

"We moved him to a small Montessori School that was in the home of the teacher, Lauren Gallagher." Fritz found that the new environment had an astounding effect.

"Andrew became so fulfilled, leaping into writing and reading. He especially loved numbers and puzzles. He was engaged each day in positive ways, and the aggressive behaviors quickly faded," Fritz said.

"He started to have wonderful little friends; not surprisingly, no one liked him when he kicked and bit."

Maria Montessori, herself a product of a less tolerant age, had to do some scrapping herself.

Born in Chiaravalle, Italy, in 1870, she studied many subjects, including math and physics. She fought to be allowed into a medical program that did not accept women.

But she persevered and graduated in 1896. In 1906, Montessori began working with 60 young children from working families at Children's House.

It was there that she developed the educational methods that are still used in Montessori schools today.

"I have studied the child. I have taken what the child has given me and expressed it, and that is what is called the Montessori method," she said.

A study published in the journal Science in September 2006 found that children in Montessori schools had improved academic and behavioral skills compared to a control group from the mainstream school system.

"When strictly implemented, Montessori education fosters social and academic skills that are equal or superior to those fostered by a pool of other types of schools," the study concluded.

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