August 1, 2008

School for Tots Touts Freedom

By Kinea White Epps, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.

Aug. 1--In the middle of a cluttered building filled with plywood and paint fumes, Sophie Fisk and Pam Alcock see the future.

It's one that's not too far away.

Fisk and Alcock are opening northern Wake's newest Montessori preschool. The International Montessori School of North Raleigh is scheduled to open in September off Falls of Neuse Road near Interstate 540.

The two can already see little tots roaming about the classroom from one activity to the other, learning words in Italian and Spanish and working on letters and numbers.

The new preschool will operate on a half-day, year-round program. Focused on Montessori principles, which engage students in daily activities by having them learn on their own, Fisk and Alcock plan to offer the 3- and 4-year-olds Italian, French and Spanish.

The multi-language piece of the preschool program gives a nod to the backgrounds of Fisk and Alcock. Both were trained in Montessori practices in Europe. Fisk taught in Europe and Alcock in Africa. The International Montessori School of North Raleigh joins a growing list of preschool programs now offering multi-language for students.

"We want to broaden their minds through different cultures," said Fisk.

Fisk and Alcock met about a year ago when they both worked at another Montessori school in Raleigh. Both had long wanted to open a school of their own. After several conversations, the two decided the timing was right.

They pulled out a map and plotted the area. After visiting several locations, they settled on a space off Falls of Neuse Road next to Lee Brothers Tae Kwon Do.

Whole child approach

The Montessori philosophy was started a century ago in the slums of Rome by Italian pediatrician Maria Montessori. It was first practiced in the United States in the 1960s by a handful of private schools.

But today, Montessori practices are used in more than 4,000 schools, mostly preschools and elementary schools -- including more than 20 private, charter and public schools in the Triangle.

"To me, that says that Montessori has longevity and it's here to stay," said Meg Thomas, head of school at the Montessori School of Raleigh, off Lead Mine Road.

The Montessori philosophy is based on Montessori's belief that children learn better when they teach themselves and the teacher serves a guide.

The opening of the preschool signals what Montessori experts say is a growing interest in the philosophy.

The Montessori philosophy also is gaining international attention. Schools have opened in Japan, India and Africa.

Across the Triangle, several Montessori schools have waiting lists. At Casa Esperanza, off Sumner Boulevard near Old Wake Forest Road, enrollment has tripled since the school opened five years ago.

"We continue to have waiting list," said head of school Janice Bonham West.

Experts say parents are looking for more choices when it comes to how their kids are educated. They also attribute growing interest to the number of former Montessori students who are now parents.

What is attracting parents to Montessori, experts say, is that the method focuses on developing the whole child -- emotionally, socially and physically -- by allowing kids to learn on their own. Students are clustered into multi-age groups for three years. For example, a classroom could include students who are 3- to 6-years-old.

"The beauty within that three-year cycle is that kids can move ahead when they are ready or move slower if they need more practice," Thomas said.

Critics have said the way Montessori methods are implemented seems unorganized. Some Montessori schools do not have desks, and students are encouraged to float around the classroom from various activities. At any one time, students could be learning math, history and science.

"Because there is this freedom of movement and more individual classwork, to some observers it looks chaotic but it really is not," said Marie Conti, senior director of school accreditation and member programs at the American Montessori Society. "The learning is just very hands-on."

Montessori critics have also said such schools cater to the elite.

But Montessori leaders contend that they have worked to diversify student populations. More public schools are offering Montessori programs, they say, which also attracts students of diverse backgrounds.

Raleigh's International Montessori School will start small, with about 20 children.

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