GRAND RAPIDS (WZZM) - The Grand Rapids Public School District has a 40 year history in this community with montessori education. In fact, it is one of the longest running public programs in the country.
"It was a leader in that regard. It establish some of the high watermarks for montessori education in a public venue. The montessori high school was noted as one of the top 300 high schools in the nation in 2007 through Time/Newsweek," said Thom Bell, a parent and co-chair on the Montessori Advisory Council.
The council is made up of a group of parents, professionals and community partners that serve as a sort of think tank for the district's program. They have had their hands full in recent years as budget cuts and reorganization affected the montessori program, most specifically the high school.
"It has always had a very high graduation rate but has struggled to maintain those standards through the right-sizing of the district and through moving facilities," said Bell. "We lost stability and momentum."
But now, through a public awareness campaign, recruitment activity and a commitment to the staff the district is turning that around.
"I see it growing. I think the community is beginning to see the benefits of the montessori way of teaching and learning and I only see it growing," said Nikki Jones, Principal, Grand Rapids Montessori at Fountain and Central.
Montessori is an alternative way of teaching that Jones describes as a "tried and true way of teaching and learning." However, it is not always well understood, especially to an unfamiliar eye.
"When you walk into a montessori classroom it does look like chaos but it is ordered chaos," said Jones. "You will see students that are engaged in their learning. They are talking to each other. They are helping each other. For example, in our E1 classrooms, there are 1st, 2nd, 3rd grades. You may see a teacher giving two students a lesson while a third grader is helping a 1st grader with work. Or you may see 2nd graders working in the hallway with a 3rd grader. ... You won't see students sitting in rows who can't get up out of their seats. They have choice. They have freedom of movement. They plan their day."
The montessori approach focuses more on an individual style of learning. Educators believe allowing students more freedom and independence encourage critical thinking skills and produces outstanding results.
"They do well on the MAP Test, MEAP Test, pretty much any test they are given. Children are able to explore at their own pace but we still push them to excel," said Jones. "Montessori really does follow the child. It is a gentle way of learning. It is not a drill and kill. It is time for students to develop themselves with the help of the teacher. Our montessori students are definitely more divergent thinkers many of them have gone off to be successful. We believe most of our students are well prepared to go to college because of the way we teach and they way that they learn."
Bell said he has experienced it with his own children and their classmates.
"It works phenomenally well. Kids come into kindergarten and every one of them is a genius. They are a genius because their inner light and interest in learning is driving them every day," he said. "The development of the child and the character of the child is tantamount. It is the whole purpose of the environment with every thing that goes in the classroom being built upon the confidence that if a child is motivated intrinsically they will accumulate the academic accomplishments we all expect. That is a very different education model. You are motivating through an intrinsic value as opposed to a reward system."
Montessori is usually offered in a private setting and tuition can be costly for parents. Which is one more reason parents are delighted over the districts efforts to provide an outstanding public program.
"It is clearly underway and momentum is building," said Bell. "Not only am I encouraged but I am excited."
Under the new leadership of Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal, the district has taken steps to make improvements to the program.
"She has committed $50,000 for professional development for the montessori teachers and montessori program. So we are extremely excited about her support and her help," said Jones. "Just recently the middle school, high school teachers, myself and Robin Sorge, the principal at North Park Montessori went to Cincinnati for a five week training and that was paid for with that $50,000"
"There has been marketing and promotional activity that has gone on that coupled with a recruitment activity and also coupled with training new teachers, getting more certified highly qualified teachers in the classroom. They are coming back into the classroom right now revitalized and very enthusiastic," said Bell.
He believes that enthusiasm will rub off on the students and inspire them to do extremely well.
"Boy, we are on the verge of a fantastic success story right here in Grand Rapids with the infusion of support for teachers by the district," he said. I feel privileged that Grand Rapids has a public montessori program but I also feel that it is a program that should be expanded because it will serve every child well.