A Quarter of Amherst Montessori Students Get Financial Aid

The Amherst Montessori School philosophy might seem foreign to those who attended traditional schools. Teachers determine when the class will study certain subjects, but students focus individually on topics they find most interesting. The goal, said Tamara Sheesley Balis, head of school, is to foster a love of learning in the students.

"You can learn to write a million different ways," she said. "So why not learn about grammar and the components of a good paragraph while writing about something that fascinates you?"

The school, located at 27 Pomeroy Lane in South Amherst, has 75 children, ages 18 months to 9 years, enrolled for the fall in three levels: preschool, kindergarten and elementary. The elementary program, which is for ages 6 to 9, was suspended last year because of low enrollment, but will be back in the fall, as six children have already signed up.

Children of different ages are grouped together in the same classroom so they can learn from the teacher and each other, which Julie Johnson, assistant head of school, said is important because it teaches leadership and mentoring skills to students from a young age.

Montessori also never exceeds a 10-to-1 student-teacher ratio, which allows for more individual attention than most public schools can provide, with an average ratio of 15-to-1, according to Department of Education figures from 2002.

Amherst resident Sue Roberts, who has one child enrolled in Montessori and sent her other child there for three years, considers the school's emphasis on individual attention extremely important.

"They know each student very well, what they are capable of and interested in, and they tailor the education to each student," she said. "I think that helps a lot in allowing children reach their potential."

Roberts said Montessori prepared her son - who just finished kindergarten, his first year of public school - extremely well, as he is now reading at a second-grade level and is already performing many multiplication tables.

The school is based on the philosophy of Dr. Maria Montessori, an Italian education pioneer whose approach to teaching is used throughout the world. Amherst's Montessori has been open since 1970, which to Sheesley Balis is proof that children enjoy attending the school.

"When every child gets to make choices all day about what they are going to work on … it makes them really excited to come to school," she said.

Sheesley Balis said the children become especially excited about choosing their own field trips. If a class has been learning about fish and decides to visit an aquarium, the children do all the planning: They call the aquarium to schedule the trip, find out how much it's going to cost and arrange for chaperones and friends to accompany them.

"This is the culmination to all the work that they have done," she said. "When you learn the skills to create an event in the second or third grade, you're going to have those skills for life."

In addition to having adult responsibilities, children also work on assignments as adults would. Montessori has three-hour work cycles, and students can devote all this time to a single idea, which prevents their work from being cut short because the class is moving to a new subject. Sheesley Balis said adults don't want to be interrupted while working on an important project, and neither do children.

"Their process is honored in the same way we would want our process to be honored, and it allows them to complete the work they want to do and are inspired by," she said.

The school also places an emphasis on learning through experience and getting children involved in the community. Children visit area retirement homes and libraries, swim at a local pool and take gymnastics classes. For the fall, Montessori is also working on a partnership with a local farm that would allow students to take part in a farming "work-study" program.

"Only through the experience of doing something can you truly learn it," said Johnson. "We want the kids to understand how food is produced, so when they buy a vegetable at the store, they know how it got there."

Montessori is a private nonprofit that is financed by fundraising and charging tuition, for which about 25 percent of families receive financial aid.

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This article originally appeared in the Amherst Bulletin newspaper. It's used here with the author's permission.

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