CINCINNATI -- It took Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori’s method of teaching young children 88 years to reach American public schools. But when it did in 1975, the seminal event happened right here in Cincinnati.
This year, the oldest public Montessori school in the country, Sands Montessori in Mount Washington, welcomed 707 students into a Cincinnati system that includes six sister schools that together serve children from preschool through high school.
Among them is another first in Montessori history: Cincinnati Public Schools established the first high school, Clark Montessori in Hyde Park, in 1994.
The Montessori method emphasizes hands-on lessons, with teachers guiding rather than lecturing.
A recent first for the CPS is the neighborhood Montessori school in Pleasant Ridge, which is the only one that draws just from its immediate geographic era. The others draw from throughout the Cincinnati Public School District.
Montessori Comes To Cincinnati
Annette Delaney, who is in her 29th year as a teacher and enrichment specialist at Sands, credits the Montessori teaching program at Xavier University and strong support from parents for the popularity and success of Cincinnati’s public Montessori schools.
“I call Cincinnati the Montessori Mecca,” she said. “Sands is the mother school, and the others are her daughter schools.”
Cincinnati already had more than 25 private kindergarten-through-sixth-grade Montessori schools when Nancy Rambusch, founder of the American Montessori Society, and Xavier University Montessori instructors Martha McDermott and Beth Bronsil brought the progressive teaching method to Cincinnati Public Schools, said 27-year Sands teacher Mitza Constantini.
That initial program was designed by Rambusch and implemented at Children’s House in Mount Adams. The enrollment spiked to 200, and the school expanded to satellite programs in Lower Price Hill's Oyler School and Over-the-Rhine's Heberle School.
The three programs united in 1979 in an old school building at 940 Poplar St., in the West End. The district named its first pre-K-through-sixth-grade Montessori after George F. Sands, who was a principal and teacher when the building was the 14th District School in the 19th century. The Sands school moved to the east side of Mount Washington and then again to a federally certified Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building in 2010.
Success Prompted Expansion
Expansion of the Montessori program continued from the 1980s into the 21st century with new programs in West Price Hill (Carson, later renamed Dater and moved to Westwood), Winton Place (Winton, renamed Parker Woods and moved to Northside), Hyde Park (Clark), North Avondale, Winton Terrace (Westside, then renamed Gamble and moved to Westwood) and Pleasant Ridge.
The two high schools – Clark and then Gamble (2005) – started with just seventh grade in their first year and then added one in each subsequent year. Clark graduated its first class of seniors in 1980, which was the first year it offered a full junior and senior high program.
Clark -- which, like Sands, has garnered many academic accolades -- was founded as a response from families whose children did not pass the stringent test to get into CPS' college preparatory program at Walnut Hills High School, Delaney said.
Transition Sometimes Difficult
“It was Walnut Hills or bust back then,” she said. “Children and parents were very upset, and Clark was conceived and birthed out of that.”
Making the transition from a district with traditional methods only to one with Montessori methods was difficult, Constantini said.
“Money was a huge thing,” she said “We used to have parties in people’s basements to make Montessori teaching materials because CPS hadn’t enough money.”
Also, she said, finding teachers willing to switch from traditional to Montessori methods was tough, and Xavier couldn’t grow its training laboratory fast enough to keep up with the demand for new Montessori teachers.
That is not so much the case anymore. The Cincinnati Public School’s success with the Montessori method and its true meaning was exemplified in May when Gamble Montessori math and language teacher Krista Taylor gave to the school the $10,000 she won for being named Teacher of the Year by Western & Southern Financial Group.
“She’s thrown down the gauntlet for us to support Montessori students,” Delaney said.
Taylor’s actions reflect what the CPS program’s founders were all about.
Other Cities Followed
“What those three (original) teachers did … they gave every bit of grit of themselves to lay a foundation that we now stand on,” Delaney said.
American cities that followed Cincinnati’s lead and stand on that foundation are in all but a few states and include Dayton, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Louisville, St. Louis, Detroit and Chicago.
For more on the Montessori program at Cincinnati Public Schools, go to www.cps-k12.org.
The Montessori Method
The Montessori method, developed by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori in the early 1900s, emphasizes teaching through all the senses as opposed to a classroom atmosphere dominated by lecture and rote memorization.
Teachers incorporate hands-on lessons so students can learn through experience.
“Ultimately, what we want are students who are self-directed,” said Sands 3-K teacher Mitza Constantini.
Teachers act more like guides, helping students establish individual work plans that allow them “to stretch and grow,” said Sands principal Sarah Lord. And parents are encouraged to become involved at the school and special events.
Classrooms, in which students are grouped by age rather than grade, are open so the learning environment is comfortable and casual. The younger students spend a lot of time on the floor working on projects.
“The teacher is not the center of attention,” said 29-year Sands teacher Annette Delaney. “In most classes you go into, you won’t see a teacher’s desk.”
Once they are in high school, Montessori students raise money to take part in week-long experiences that could entail travel and adventure.
For a lot more on the Montessori method, go to www.montessori.edu.