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Mountaineer Montessori's method

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Preschool children sat in several separate clusters on the floor at Mountaineer Montessori School. Some were reading, others were setting a dinner table at the "practical life" station.

A 3-year-old cried in the corner, seemingly unnoticed by his teachers and young peers.

"Do you see how they are just leaving him be? There's probably something he's got to work out," said Dana Gilliland, head of the school. "Here, we try to encourage as much independence as possible."

Like other Montessori schools, Mountaineer Montessori works to foster individualized learning and allows children to follow their own interests and curiosity.

As Gilliland puts it, at Mountaineer Montessori, "learning means more," with a special focus on time management, self-control and organizational skills.

"Here, we make really advanced concepts much easier to understand, so that students can really intuit it. A child as young as 3 learns the concept and meaning of what zero means and what a noun really is, rather than just labeling it," she said. "They're able to understand them much better and apply them and evaluate them."

There are 99 students enrolled at the school, with four lead teachers. There is a waiting list for each class level, and enrollment increased by more than 20 percent since last year, according to Gilliland.

The school extends to sixth grade, but a feasibility study is already being conducted to see about adding seventh and eighth grades.

"We definitely want to expand to middle school. It's just a question of when," Gilliland said. "People are looking for alternatives because public schools are struggling so much. It's getting harder and harder to meet the needs of children."

Tuition costs about $6,000 a year. The area also has another Montessori elementary school -- Charleston Montessori, which currently enrolls 56 children. Tuition at Charleston Montessori is $5,500.

However, while interest has grown in Montessori education in the area, it's not enough, Gilliland said.

The Montessori method is "very underrepresented" in West Virginia, and Gilliland -- who just came from a Montessori school in Indonesia -- is working to change that.

"Clearing up some of those misconceptions is one of our main priorities, especially in the Charleston area. We want to educate people on what Montessori is really about," she said.

Some of the misconceptions Gilliland has heard are that the school has lax policies or is only for special children.

Mountaineer Montessori students are rarely assigned homework, and they don't receive letter grades on their report cards.

"Discipline is maintained really, really tightly. It doesn't look like it, though, because you see them all doing their own thing," Gilliland said. "There's a lot of freedom, but there has to be a lot of structure or otherwise it doesn't work. The children learn from an early age that they have to do things very precisely -- exactly the way they were taught, and they're really gently guided to do that."

In lieu of homework, teachers encourage students to become involved in "meaningful" activities after school, and, instead of traditional report cards, the school provides detailed progress reports that include commentary on students' work and social habits.

Students are able to work at their own pace. If they finish a project, they move on to the next lesson, regardless of their classmates' status.

"No two children have exactly the same path through the whole curriculum," Gilliland said. "They can work on big projects without being interrupted, and they can really do beautiful, amazing things. In a traditional classroom, they don't always have the chance."

The older children also often make trips out into the community, volunteering to read to younger students at other schools or serve food at shelters.

Professional artists and musicians frequently visit the school to teach new lessons.

While Gilliland, 54, has a background in education, her passion for Montessori came from her own experiences with her three daughters, all of whom went to Montessori schools in Ohio.

Her eldest, a recent graduate of Cornell University, is a software engineer for Facebook.

"I taught for 20 years, and I walked into a [Montessori] classroom and I fell in love," Gilliland said. "The children that leave here are so well-grounded and tend to grow up to be very successful adults."

Gilliland says the most important belief driving the Montessori method of teaching is the building of self-respect for students.

"Public schools are much more teacher-centered. In a Montessori classroom, a child is their own guide, and who better to guide their learning? Children want to learn -- they're anxious. They're hungry for it," she said. "Let them follow their passions and interests rather than imposing something on them.

"It's much more logical, and the results are that learning is much more meaningful."

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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