Soon the Colorado City/Hildale area will be home to a Montessori school. The Montessori Method of teaching was developed by Maria Montessori in the early 1900s. Although it is a relatively old teaching philosophy, it is regarded by parents and teachers alike as being highly effective, dynamic, and engaging. It focuses on tapping into the interests and aptitudes of children and uses that to guide them through the learning experience.
The new school is called Creekside Montessori: Joyful Learning Community and is being brought to reality by Margaret Williams. Margaret has been in education for 28 years, serving both public and private schools in the community. She earned a bachelor’s teaching degree from Southern Utah University and a Master’s degree in Teaching through the Arts from Leslie University.
Margaret was a driving force behind the Kindergarten program at CCUSD, so this is not her first time building a program from the ground up. “There had never been a kindergarten in the area but there were a lot of people interested, so I approached the administration about the idea of setting up a kindergarten,” says Margaret. She ran that program successfully for several years before decided to further her education to better serve the children. “As time went on I ended up getting my Master’s degree in Teaching through the Arts. I thoroughly enjoyed that. It was a lot of fun learning ways that you can pull arts into your instruction.”
Through her experience teaching at the public school, she became intimately aware of some of the limitations of traditional classroom instruction and saw firsthand that some students were not being well served by that system. “Over the years, I’ve seen so many kids that just didn’t quite make it in the public-school system. They come into school with this excitement, eager to learn, like all 5-year olds are.” She continues, “Watching them go through the system, each year you can see them losing more of that love and excitement.” She claims that this dynamic is a huge limiting factor for students and attributes it, in part, to the structure of the system. “You’re putting a large number of students with one teacher, and it’s difficult to reach all of them. I think the segment that is the most underserved are the gifted children. Then there’s the state mandated testing which puts tremendous pressure on the teachers and students. This can lead to a negative cycle.” She explains further, “Soon parents have to drag these kids to school and teachers have to try all kinds of incentives to try and get them to learn. Not all kids, but there are those certain kids that just don’t do well with the public-school system. I’ve seen that and knew that there needed to be something different.”
Margaret mentioned the support that she has had in this venture from fellow teachers that she has worked with throughout the years. “When I took this step, I got so much positive reinforcement from my fellow teachers, because we all see those kids that we’re not reaching in the classroom.” Ultimately, this project is about being a part of the larger educational system as a powerful resource to ensure that all children in the community receive the highest quality education possible.
The value brought by the Montessori Method is summed up by Margaret in this way, “The things I think I love the most about the Montessori method are, number one, it’s self-correcting. The activities are set up in such a way that the child can check his own work. He is not constantly looking to the teacher for support. They automatically look within, find the error, and correct it. The other thing I love is that each kid is on their own path and it does not matter if the kid next to them is doing something completely different.” Children leading their own educational experience is the hallmark of the method, providing a level of buy-in that is sometimes difficult to achieve. It is very hands on and self-directed. This completely changes the student-teacher dynamic from a teacher lecturing at the front of the class and trying to manage the attention of the entire class, to observing the individual students and guiding that process from the sidelines. “The teachers’ job in the classroom is very different; we are not there to lecture,” says Margaret. She explains, “We are observing the kids and their learning, when we see that they have mastered a skill and are ready for the next step; we present it to that child, so each child is getting a one-on-one experience.”
To some, this may sound a bit chaotic. Margaret assures otherwise. “We watch each child and we keep track of the steps they have made, so it’s not just a free for all. But they are not compared one against another.” With this method, there are no standardized tests but each child does have a checklist of certain steps that the teacher is monitoring for evidence of mastery. After the teacher is certain of that mastery, she or he then steps in to guide the child into the next activity that is designed specifically for the mastery of whatever subject or skill is being taught. “You can tell if it is something they have mastered. If you can see that it is something that they are still working on and don’t quite have yet, you indicate that. If it looks like they need to have it re-demonstrated then you will do that,” she says.
The consensus that Margaret has heard from parents who have enrolled their children in Montessori schools is that they perform ahead of their peers when they transition to public schools. There is a great deal of excitement about the project. “I’ve talked with a lot of people and a lot of parents, just within this process and what I’ve heard back is extreme excitement when they hear that I’m doing this,” she says. Up until this point, the closest Montessori school was in St George, Utah. Margaret says that she knows parents who have been making the commute to Montessori schools as far away as Cedar City, each day. This is a testament to the love many parents have for this program.
There have been some challenges in bringing this project to life. Margaret explained, “The most challenging thing for me is the paper work end of it. Going through the process of becoming a nonprofit has been a challenge.” She has registered for tax exempt, non-profit status due to her commitment to the method. If she were to set it up as a private or charter school and seek federal funding, there would be testing requirements that could potentially come into conflict with the core of the teaching method. She faces some funding challenges due to the economic nature of the area as well. “I’ve looked at all the areas around and the tuition they charge, and I just didn’t know that I could expect that in this area. At the public-school level, 89% of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. So, I couldn’t ask them for $4,000 in tuition like they would pay if they went to the St. George Montessori. So, I decided to do it privately and turn it into a non-profit, so that we could find ways to supplement the tuition. That way parents aren’t carrying the whole load.” While there is some funding that she expects to receive through Title 1 grants, she will rely on donors and fundraising events to make up for what she cannot make on tuition. “I am definitely going to rely on donors, I just got my paperwork back, and I am officially a tax-exempt organization, I am going to be approaching businesses and individuals for donations and support for fundraising events.”
Despite some difficulty, she has been humbled by how the process has naturally come together. “It has amazed me how synchronistic things have been. Any time I have had a question or concern, I would either read something or talk with somebody, or something would happen to bring that to my attention.” She continues, “Finding the materials just happened accidentally which is a big thing because it is quite expensive to start a Montessori. I happened to find someone in Toquerville who had retired from her Montessori school and had all her materials packed away in her garage. She had just decided to sell it the week I started looking. She was willing to negotiate with me and wait for me to gather the funds. It’s just things like that which have made it a fun and joyful process.” The main challenges going forward are fencing in her yard and a playground which will require funding. “I set up a budget based on best case scenario, I just counted as if all of my spots were filled up and all of the tuition was paid.” She says excitedly, “I’ve just been putting it out there that any child that deserves this kind of education will be here when school starts, and I’m just hoping that every kid that deserves it will get it.”
Margaret has found another teacher Sarah B. Hammon who is interested in coming on board. Sarah will work as a teacher assistant this year while getting her Montessori certification.
This first year, they are anticipating a class size of between 30 and 40 students. This number will be broken into 2 sessions, one in the afternoon and another in the morning. The cap for each session is 20 students. The age range is 3 to 6 years old. They plan on expanding to serve up through age 12 within the next 5 years.
Creekside Montessori starts on August 14th. The yearly tuition will be $2000 per child if paid up front. There is also a payment plan of $220 per month, for 10 months in the event that a parent cannot come up with the tuition all at once. Margaret has already had a little heartbreak in the form of some parents who would dearly love to have their child enrolled in her school but are to financially strapped to come up with tuition. She hopes to work towards a scholarship program so the tuition can eventually be on a sliding scale based on parent’s income. “I do not want it to be a school for only the kids whose parents can afford it. I want a very diverse student body—as diverse as we can get in this very rural area of Northern Arizona.”
Margaret hopes to get businesses and individuals who are willing to donate toward this scholarship fund, or even sponsor a child for a year of education. “It would be a tax write-off for a business and a great opportunity for a child. I call that a win-win!”
For more information or to make donations, visit the website at www.creeksideway.com.