Montessori Schools are Thriving in Loudoun, but What Makes them Different from Traditional Schools and Each Other.
The name Montessori comes with a reputation. When parents enroll their children in a Montessori pre-school as opposed to a traditional pre-school, they expect an exceptional foundation that will set their children up for success.
But there is little that is universal about Montessori.
Out of the nearly 50 pre-school/daycares in Loudoun, 16 are Montessori Schools. Whether all follow the Montessori philosophy can’t be known at a glance. To make things even more complex, Montessori isn’t a trademark; anyone could open a school that could end up being Montessori only in name.
Yet parents expect — and pay for — a Montessori program that will set their children up for a high-achieving academic future. Prices vary from school to school, but depending on a student’s age, type of program — half day versus full day versus extended day — parents can pay anywhere between $850 and nearly $2,000 a month.
Some Montessori schools, such as Montessori Children’s House of Loudoun in Sterling, accept children as young as six weeks old. Others don’t accept children until they’re two years old. Most Montessori schools go through kindergarten, but schools like LePort Aldie and LePort Broadlands go through third grade and sixth grade, respectively.
So how can parents tell what’s a real Montessori school and what’s not? The first step is to look at a school’s accreditation status, LePort Aldie Head of School Joseph Wood said.
The Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) and American Montessori Society (AMS) are the leading Montessori professional associations, and schools on the east coast are mostly AMS members, Wood said.
AMS is the largest professional association for Montessori schools and teachers and Montessori teacher training programs, AMS Senior Director of Accreditation Sara Wilson said. Once schools open, they can apply to be member schools. If they meet all the criteria to be full members, they can then apply for AMS accreditation.
Of the estimated 5,000 Montessori schools in the U.S.,only 1,400 are registered AMS member schools, Wilson said. There are three levels of AMS membership — initiate, associate and full memberships. Initiate membership designate schools that are new to AMS membership or new schools, and are just in the process of starting the membership process.
Associate member schools have some but not all lead teachers trained in the Montessori philosophy. Full member schools have a Montessori-credentialed lead teacher in every classroom and their training is for the ages of the children they served. Of the pool of 1,400 schools AMS member schools, about 400 are full member schools and are eligible to pursue the accreditation process, Wilson said.
“Accreditation is the only way that AMS affirms that schools are meeting standards for quality Montessori implementation. Our standards speak to the fidelity of the school’s educational program but also speaks to the school’s stability and strength of organization,” Wilson said.
“We always recommend accredited schools when we can, because they’re the only ones that we know are meeting established, rigorous standards of quality. If there aren’t accredited schools in the area, we recommend full members because at least those have properly trained Montessori teachers. Which is not to say that a school that’s not a member of AMS or is not accredited, they may be perfectly great schools too, we just don’t know anything about the quality of those schools”
The accreditation process typically takes two years and resembles the process independent schools go through, Wilson said. AMS is an approved accrediting organization through the Virginia Council for Private Education, the state approved accreditor of private schools. So schools that are accredited by AMS receive the state accreditation of the private school, she said.
AMS recognizes teaching credentials from AMI and the Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education (MACTE). The organization also offers a “find a school” function on its website that recognizes all the member and accredited schools. According to the AMS website, of the 16 Montessori schools in Loudoun, one is an associate member school, 10 are full members and of the 10 full members, three are accredited.
Wilson said she encourages schools to become AMS member schools because membership provides coaching and professional development programs and other benefits that encourage continuous school improvement. The Montessori training is vital to providing an authentic experience for children.
“The biggest difference between Montessori and a traditional education is that Montessori is designed to be child-centered. They are in control of their day which fosters their independence,” Wilson said.
“I think every child care center would say they value the development of the whole child — the cognitive, physical, social skills — but the design of the Montessori classroom and materials address all of the different aspects of a child’s development and is respectful of individual differences and what makes that child unique. So children really learn at their own pace, they develop their own interests and skills, they pursue their interests when they’re ready to do it. It feels very respectful of children,” she said.
“I think that in Montessori classrooms, we believe we are educating for a more peaceful world. So appreciation of diversity and differences and creating citizens who are peaceful is a really important piece of the philosophy that I don’t know that you get in traditional environments,” Wilson said.
The Montessori Difference
The Montessori philosophy can be explained by four approaches: the prepared environment, mixed-age classroom, Montessori-trained teachers and the Montessori materials.
“Prepared environment is critical. This means everything is at child’s level, everything is accessible to the child, the child should have the opportunity to be independent without any assistance from the adult,” Wood said.
This means the sink should be accessible; if the sink’s not at the child’s level, there should be step stools in the bathrooms. Classrooms should have child-sized mops and brooms so if the student makes a mess, they can clean it up on their own, Wood said.
“You don’t want a big adult-sized broom because the child can’t use it, everything has to be on the child’s level. So that’s also why the prepared environment is referred to as the Children’s House,” he said.
In Montessori, students are with the same teacher for three years and classrooms have children of mixed ages. This is one of the biggest differences between Montessori and traditional pre-school programs, Montessori Children’s House of Loudoun Director Meg Brown said.
Mixed age classrooms allow teachers to teach and guide children to each child’s individual need and pace, Molly Whittaker, MCHL teacher, said. Wood echoed this saying a student may not be interested in a subject one year but will be bursting with curiosity the next year. Instead of having to force a student to learn specific subjects at specific times, teachers can follow each child’s development and encourage a deep understanding of the material when the child is ready, because they have three years with each student instead of one, he said.
“If you see a child is really engaged and interested in doing a puzzle map, that child could conceivably stay with that activity for an hour and a half. Because we want to cultivate concentration. Same thing with math, same thing with a child who’s starting to read. We let that child sit there and read and they don’t have that constant interruption,” Brown said. “So I think that’s really important to follow the child and provide some flexibility throughout the day so that the child isn’t herded from one area to the other. That can create frustration and not allow the child to really nurture what they’re passionate about.”
The mixed age environment also allows the children help with classroom management, Wood said
“The older students model for the younger students,” Wood said. “So when a younger student comes into the classroom, you might ask how does a classroom work without the teacher telling everyone what to do, but the little guys are watching the older guys because they’ve been in the classroom now for three years, they know what they’re doing. And then the older kids are developing confidence because they’re leading.”
Many organizations offer Montessori teacher training, but AMS only recognizes teaching credentials from affiliated teacher education programs, AMI programs, and programs accredited by MACTE. MCHL in Sterling is a full member AMS school so all teachers take special training, Brown said. They go through a year-long training to learn the philosophy of Montessori, what are the materials you use and teaching approach, so they all have the same foundation and goals as far as encouraging independence in the children, she said.
Likewise, AMI teachers also go through a year-long training. AMS and AMI offer yearly refresher courses and conferences and Wood said all LePort schools, have experts come in monthly for training updates.
One of the last things that sets Montessori apart are the materials.
“Anyone can call themselves a Montessori School. Sheila (the school’s executive director) and I went to a school we were looking to acquire before opening this one, it was a Montessori school and there were zero Montessori materials,” Villa Montessori Preschool Owner Tim Copp said.
Internet vendors sell Montessori materials like the signature pink tower, brown stair puzzle maps and gold bead materials. These materials are used as the foundation for everyone’s learning, and go from the easy and abstract to more concrete materials as the child develops.
“One thing you have to understand is that Montessori is a curriculum. There’s a basic here’s where you go, here’s what you do, but instead of pen and paper curriculum, the materials are the curriculum, so you have to have a standard set of materials,” Villa Montessori Preschool Executive Director Sheila Huyett said. “So if you don’t have them, it’s not really Montessori.”
Some materials teach students practical life skills like zipping coats, tying shoes and buttoning clothes.
“And practical life helps them with their confidence. When they’re doing everyday things. We use real glass in Montessori. True Montessori will have real glass and not plastic where they’re pouring little pitchers into little glasses, because we respect them to know to be careful and they’re pouring and things like that. So practical life is very important,” Huyett said.
The materials are intentionally designed to give children a deep understanding of concepts, Wood said. Most of the materials are made out of wood. Maria Montessori chose wood because wood is warmer to the touch and it’s more approachable for kids, and she wanted children to intrinsically choose the materials, Wood said.
“For example, we have the binomial and trinomial cube. So it’s basically a box that has all of these different shaped blocks inside of it and it looks like you’re building blocks. But actually, it’s the way the binomial cube and trinomial cube fit together in math. So as they’re building this, they’re building a concrete understanding of how this fits together, so when they get to elementary and they start doing these formulas, abstractly, they have a concrete understanding of it. So everything is built to scaffold upon itself that way,” he said.
Montessori kids are known for very open-minded and accepting everyone’s differences, Wood said. He attributes this to Montessori teaching history, anthropology and timelines so students actually better understand where they fit in the grand scheme of things and how new America is. Wood feels it gives the kids a different perspective on the world.
“I think that in Montessori classrooms, we believe we are educating for a more peaceful world. So appreciation of diversity and differences and creating citizens who are peaceful is a really important piece of the philosophy that I don’t know that you get in traditional environments, Wilson said.”
AMS Versus AMI
Although AMI and AMS believe in the same Montessori philosophy, they each take a different approach, which parents may notice. AMI is an international organization that was founded by Maria Montessori in 1929 and is headquartered in Amsterdam.
“AMI stays exactly true to what Maria Montessori herself did. AMS tries to evolve using new science and social things to keep up with the times. So, AMI is basically like if Maria Montessori made a cake, if your grandma made a cake and handed it down from generation to generation, it’s the exact same recipe, it’s the exact same cake. AMS is like they replaced the sugar with different sweetener and they replaced the chocolate with Nutella, at the end of the day you have a cake, but it’s not exactly the same cake, Wood said.
LePort started on the west coast and all of its west coast schools are AMI schools. LePort acquired the Boyd schools last year, which were primarily trained in the AMS style. As a result, LePort schools on the east coast are primarily AMS schools, Wood said. LePort Aldie has one AMI trained teacher. MCHL also has one AMI trained teacher. Brown and Copp both said they feel that in having both AMI and AMS trained teachers, schools flourish because teachers can learn from each other’s different approaches.
The American Montessori Society was founded by Nancy Rambusch, who originally took her training in London through AMI. She returned to America and started the first American Montessori school in Greenwich, Connecticut.
“She (Rambusch) was ahead of her time in the sense that she liked the Montessori pedagogy but felt there are a lot of things American kids can do and need to be exposed to that Dr. Montessori hadn’t touched on, so AMS, I think, is open to other schools of thought,” Brown said. “And if you go to an AMS school, you’ll typically see materials that are not classic Montessori materials but definitely complement Montessori as far as its purpose and goals.”
Villa Montessori in Leesburg is an example of this. In addition to Montessori materials and teaching, the school also implements Reggio, which uses children’s ideas and curiosities to teach them. Reggio incorporates imagination in a way that Montessori does not, Huyett said. She finds that the two philosophies perfectly complement each other.
“Montessorians don’t believe in make-believe. Well, all the new childhood standards and all of the studies show it’s huge, they need that, especially with how the world is changing. Kids have to learn differently now. They have to ask questions, they have to do research, they don’t need rote memory anymore,” Huyett said. “So you need the foundation to teach them the discipline to want to learn, and you get that with Montessori, beautifully, but now we need to add that Reggio and bring out some really cool things and say, what do you want to know about this? Where do you want to go from this?”
The Montessori Legacy
One thing that all Montessori schools appear to have in common is a desire to inspire a lifelong love of learning by students. Wood has been a Montessori teacher for three years and was drawn to the philosophy because of how excited his students are to learn as opposed to those in traditional classrooms.
Brown agreed, saying Montessori has earned a reputation for giving children a great academic foundation, and while parents may be concerned with benchmarks like reading and math levels, the holistic approach is important.
“I’m definitely going to put my kids through. I believe in it wholeheartedly. I think that the reason, frankly, that Montessori is not in the mainstream is because we are a very product-oriented society and Montessori is process-based,” Wood said.
“Because we don’t send home benchmarks, test scores, grades and compare kids to each other and destroy their confidence and destroy their intrinsic love of learning, a lot of times parents get anxiety, ‘Oh my kid might be falling behind.’ To have a kid in Montessori means you trust the process, means you’re not worried about competing with all of the scores nationwide or competing with China. It’s all about your child and turning them into a well-rounded world citizen.”