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The Montessori Program At Douglas

– Guest Editorial – 

The Edgefield County School Board very likely will decide the fate of the Montessori program at Douglas Elementary School at the next board meeting, on Tuesday May 28th. The Montessori program at Douglas Elementary is the only school choice program in our district for students at the elementary school level. We are not ready to concede that Edgefield County can’t accomplish what other districts have for their parents and students.

Although represented by only a single program here in Edgefield County, Montessori programs have become an important and flourishing school choice across the state, expanding to 47 programs in 24 districts since 1995. In fact, South Carolina is one of the leading states in expanding this educational approach in public schools, although it is an established method of instruction in other parts of the US and throughout the world and has a long and impressive track record as an effective teaching method in private schools.

The Montessori Method, invented by Dr. Maria Montessori over a century ago, is an educational approach that is child-centered, focusing on development of the whole child. The method is characterized by a hands-on and engaging learning environment, multi-age classrooms to facilitate peer-assisted learning, freedom of work options (within appropriate limits), a broad-based and integrated curriculum, and long uninterrupted blocks of work time. The students are provided with developmentally appropriate materials and are allowed to choose activities based on their needs and interests, while the teacher serves to guide the students in their learning and ensure students are challenging themselves. The Montessori method respects the child’s ability to guide and be responsible for their own learning, thereby preserving the love of learning while producing independent, critical thinkers with a social conscience that are capable of cooperative and collaborative learning. Perhaps most importantly, the individualized approach of Montessori programs benefits students regardless of their level of achievement, providing extra time and help for students who need it without limiting the growth of more advanced students by “teaching to the middle”.

The district administrators in South Carolina with established Montessori programs that we have been in contact with indicated they were very pleased with their programs, noting that, although Montessori students do not normally take tests in their classroom, their standardized test scores, reading skills, and math skills, are as good as or better than those of students in traditional classrooms. The administrators believed the Montessori students would do well with the new common core standards because a focus on problem solving and critical thinking are so integral to the Montessori classroom. We also were told that Montessori students transition well into traditional classrooms, whose teachers have characterized students with a Montessori background as strong independent workers, who also work well in groups, have a love of learning and tend to be more adaptable than students with a traditional background.

When asked why they had initiated and expanded Montessori programs in their districts, every administrator we spoke to said the same thing; they offer these programs because they feel it is important for parents to have school choice. These parental choice programs have become so popular that every district we spoke to either had waiting lists or a lottery system to determine who could enroll. Administrators of districts with Montessori programs confirmed that it can be difficult in the beginning to get the programs going and garner support from the community, but that this was to be expected because it was a different educational model, and was well worth the effort.

Besides having meaningful school choice options, it also is imperative that students in our district have equal opportunity for an appropriate early childhood education program. Although there are a few child development classes available, these fill up quickly and many students who want to enroll have to be turned away. In addition, the early childhood programs available within the district are not suitable, in our opinion, for children who do not require help or who may not function well in a traditional classroom setting. This leaves parents without any choice, thereby creating the risk of having students fall behind because of a lack of access to an engaging, challenging environment in which to learn and develop. Such a lack of diversity can only serve to impede the growth of our student population as a whole.

While the Montessori educational approach is not for every child, it does represent an alternative for students who are self-motivated, active learners and students who need a more hands-on learning environment. You can learn more about the Montessori teaching method and programs within the state at http://ed.sc.gov/agency/se/school-transformation/MontessoriPrograms.cfm and general information about the Montessori educational method at the American Montessori Society (https://www.amshq.org/Montessori-Education.aspx). If you are interested in showing your support for this school choice program, please consider coming to the next school board meeting, Tuesday, May 28th at 7pm at the District Office next to Strom Thurmond High School, or contacting your local school board members.

Mary and Derek Zelmer