"Free the child's potential, and you will transform him into the world," she said.
The Montessori approach up-ends much of what we see in a traditional school. Among her many innovations were grouping children in three-year age cohorts, allowing students to work at their own level and permitting them to explore uninterrupted for up to three hours at a time. At a Montessori school, homework and tests are a means, not an end, and only assigned judiciously.
More than a century later, an estimated 5,000 schools around the world follow the Montessori approach. Many focus on preschool education, while others serve students through grades 12. Most are private, non-profit, non-sectarian organizations, but a growing number of religious and public schools are also adopting the program.
I discovered Montessori schools by accident as my daughter neared her fourth birthday. Born at the end of August, she would have been the youngest in her class, and I was concerned that she would get lost in a pack of larger and louder children. Public school representatives encouraged me to hold her back to give her an edge in academics and sports. However, I knew she was more than ready for classroom learning, so began looking for other options.
My search stopped almost the minute I walked into the Mountaineer Montessori School, adjacent to the University of Charleston in Kanawha City. Founded in 1976, the school offers a full academic program for children from age 3 to 12.
There, I saw two dozen little people ages 3 to 6 captivated in activity that drew upon their desire to explore. I saw a 3-year-old carefully tracing the nomenclature of an animal on his own. I saw "big kids" of five sitting with toddlers to explain lessons or to help count. I saw a lot of smiles.
But what I didn't observe was equally important. Unlike most schools, classrooms were serene. Gold stars and "you are special" posters were nowhere to be found. Children went about their day, calm, content and confident without the need for constant discipline, praise or entertainment.
Much of the teachers' explanation of the Montessori philosophy went over my head, but I knew one thing: I liked what I saw. Looking back, enrolling our child there six years ago was the best decision we've made as parents.
Maria Montessori believed that "(o)ur care of the child should be governed not by the desire to make him learn things, but by the endeavor always to keep burning within him that light which is called intelligence." Lighting the flames of discovery allows children to reach their true potential, respects them as individuals and honors them as unique children of their creator. It also lays the groundwork for meaningful life of growth and success.
Clifton Clark of Charleston says the self-discipline and abstract reasoning skills he developed as a Mountaineer Montessori School student help him be a better person in business and at home.
"I've always been a naturally curious person, wanting to learn anything I possibly could," says the 32-year-old Clark, who holds JD/MBA degrees and works locally for one of the nation's largest banks. He is active with Generation Charleston, Taste-of-All and the East End Neighborhood Association.
"If find that there are a lot of situations in work and in life in which a person can take the easy way out. I do not approach situations with a 'this is how it has always been done?' view; instead, I approach them with a 'how can this be done better?' view," he says.
Skeptics may attribute the success of Montessori students to their families' socio-economic status, educational attainment and involvement, among other factors. However, a landmark study published in the Sept. 28, 2006 issue of Science magazine found that Montessori can make a difference in the most challenging environments. The study looked at two inner-city Milwaukee schools that drew students from similar low-income neighborhoods.
One school adopted the Montessori method for students starting in pre-K, while the other maintained traditional classrooms. The study found that by age 6, Montessori students outpaced peers on standardized tests in reading and math, "engaged in more positive interaction on the playground and showed more advanced social cognition and executive control."
While their lead in standardized test results leveled somewhat as they completed sixth grade, the Montessori students still "wrote more creative essays with more complex sentence structures, selected more positive responses to social dilemmas and reported feeling more a sense of community at their school."
We are living in a time of change and challenge. Never have the risks been greater nor the opportunities more bright. We can no longer accept a system that leaves potential unrealized and dreams unfulfilled. The United Negro College Fund put it best: A mind is a terrible thing to waste.
There are no easy answers to the staggering problems facing today's schools, and the Montessori approach is not a magic cure-all. Nothing is. However, continuing to remodel education without checking out its foundation and considering all options is an exercise in futility that will only lead to continued academic decline.
As vice president of the Mountaineer Montessori School Board of Directors, I offer an open invitation to our government, education, community and business leaders, and of course to all parents and students, to see for themselves how the Montessori method can light, not extinguish, the spirit of discovery within a child, and free him or her for a life of accomplishment, meaning and service. After 36 years, we have a great story to share and are eager to offer a voice and a hand to our state and community as we come together to create an education system that our children and society deserve.
Zacks is a mother, lawyer, writer and vice president of the Mountaineer Montessori School Board of Directors, MountaineerMontessori.org.