By Jennifer Goebel
Where Pleasant Street crosses under Route 2, a collection of unassuming white, Federal-style houses hosts one of Lexington’s educational rock stars: Lexington Montessori School. This June, LMS celebrates its 50th anniversary. For many Lexingtonians, this may come as a surprise—Lexington is known for its excellent public schools, but this world-class Montessori school tends to fly under the radar.
Started in 1963 by a group of Lexington parents looking for a different kind of education for their kids, the small preschool opened in its present location—130 Pleasant Street—in 1965. Fifty years later, the campus consists of four buildings and has a student body of 230. Students range in age from 21 months to young teenagers (8th grade), and come from more than 20 surrounding towns.
“LMS is here because there are Lexington families who believed in Montessori. When you choose Montessori, you are choosing a different educational philosophy,” says Aline Gery, LMS’s Head of School since 2006. “We’re grateful to be part of such a wonderful community that supports us.”
WHAT IS MONTESSORI?
Montessori schools take their name from Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator who opened her own school, Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House), in a low-income district of Rome in 1907.
The Montessori Spark
In 2011, Wall Street Journal ran an article about the surprising number of highly successful, creative people who are Montessori graduates: Larry Page and Sergei Brin (Google founders), Will Wright (creator of Sim City and Spore), Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia founder), Jeff Bezos (Amazon founder), Sean “P. Diddy” Combs (Rap artist), and Julia Child (French chef). Dubbed the “Montessori Mafia,” many of those interviewed credited Montessori with allowing them to think creatively and discover things on their own.
“Maria Montessori was all about watching kids,” says Gery. “She paid attention to the fact that kids don’t spend a lot of time sitting down. She realized that manipulating their environment is critical to how they learn and how their brains develop.”
Montessori’s educational philosophy initially caught the attention of educators all over the world, but after a brief popularity that lasted until the 1920s, the movement stalled. In 1953, Dr. Nancy Rambusch, an American educator in search of alternatives to traditional schools, met Mario Montessori, Maria’s son, at a conference in Paris. Inspired, she started teaching Montessori classes in her New York City apartment for her own children and others, and launched the first American Montessori school in Greenwich, Connecticut in 1958. Today, there are more than 1300 Montessori schools in the United States, including more than 400 programs in public schools.
A BOOK GROUP AND A DREAM
LMS’s founding can be traced back to a women’s book group in Lexington in the late 1950s or early 1960s. The story goes that the group read one of Montessori’s books on early childhood education, and became inspired to try it in Lexington. Jane Mack (photo at right), a member of the group, travelled to Greenwich, CT for workshops in Montessori teaching at the Montessori school founded by Rambusch. Mack was the school’s first teacher, holding classes in the basement of Temple Isaiah in 1963. Happy with the program’s success, Mack and parents of the preschoolers looked for a permanent home for the school, and finally found one in the old David Wellington Homestead, which had just recently ceased its run as a restaurant called The 1775 House.
Mack continued to teach classes, lead the school, and travel to conferences to learn more about Montessori education. She studied the Montessori approach to infant and toddler care at the Montessori Birth Center in Rome, and continued to supervise the LMS toddler program as she spearheaded the growth of the school. Mack served as headmistress until her retirement in 1991. Under her leadership, the school grew to 200 students from 18 months to sixth grade. When the school added a lower elementary building in 1990, it was named in her honor.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF CLASSROOM
Montessori classrooms around the world may differ, but all of them have some things in common: multi-aged classrooms, self-directed learning and discovery for long blocks of time, and no grades or tests.
“When people go see a Montessori classroom for the first time, I tell them they should think in terms of seeing a professional environment, like an architectural firm,” says Biff Maier, Director of Faculty and Curriculum Development. “It might look confusing—you might see a small group having a meeting, a few people working at drafting board, people doing presentations, and some people standing around the coffee machine chatting. You wouldn’t think it was bedlam, you’d think people are working. That’s what you will see in an LMS classroom—there will be kids working on a problem together in one part of the room, a teacher giving a small group lesson in another part, and some kids chatting or wandering around.”
Montessori schools are also famous for their manipulative materials. Rooms are laid out in categories—literature, math, science, history—and curriculum materials are sequenced from the most fundamental to the most complex. While there are milestones and educational objectives that all the children must reach, when and how they accomplish those, with whom, and how they demonstrate mastery, are primarily directed by the students themselves.
“The best of my day is hearing from the kids how their day is going,” says Jasmine Duffy, Children’s House Head Teacher for PreK and Kindergarten, and an LMS alum herself (1999). “I love watching the children work with the Montessori materials and make their own discoveries.”
Maier admits that this is hard for some parents and teachers. They may really like the idea of kids taking leadership roles in their learning, but they still want the accountability that comes with conventional classrooms and conventional metrics of achievement: standardized tests and grades.
“There’s a different kind of trust in Montessori schools,” says Maier. “I tell teachers that the secret of classroom management is to not be surprised when people are doing what’s appropriate, but to be surprised if they don’t. If they feel trusted, the students will respond. That’s what good bosses do.”
Gery, who was a high school teacher before coming to LMS, says that how she talks to and understands kids is very different now that she has been immersed in Montessori.
“That pervasive respect for kids, the way all the adults interact with their smaller charges here, is infectious. I think kids leave here with more than just knowledge; they know they have something to offer. They are confident kids who succeed as citizens of their new communities.”
TEACHING THE TEACHERS
This summer, Montessori teachers from around the country and the world will come to LMS to receive training at the Montessori Elementary Teacher Training Collaborative. Maier, who has been training teachers for more than 30 years, is excited to have the training program at LMS for the second year. The program had been in New Rochelle, NY for many years, but recent changes allowed him to bring the program to Lexington.
Training Montessori teachers is different from most other teacher training. It looks, in fact, rather like a Montessori classroom.
“We treat the teachers the way we want them to treat the kids. Autonomous, independent, in charge of their own training,” explains Maier. “We give teachers a real toolkit, not just a philosophy. We tell them what to do and even what to say. Montessori is scripted, but even so, people using the same script can have very different styles and ways of connecting.”
TEACHING THE KID’S KIDS
As it enters its sixth decade, LMS is seeing children of former students enroll. And, three teachers currently on staff are LMS graduates themselves.
“Being a Montessori teacher helps keep me optimistic about our uncertain global future because Montessori truly believed that children are significant agents of social change,” says Laini Szostkowski, Upper Elementary teacher and LMS alumna (1991-2001).
Long after they leave the school, LMS students remain connected. Maier brings back a group of students who have gone on to high school or college to talk about how Montessori education has shaped their lives each year.
“So many of them say the biggest difference that Montessori made in their lives was the habit they made of having relationships with teachers. They felt confident and valued, and weren’t afraid to jump the fence between teachers and students that exists at so many schools,” explains Maier. “They also talk about organizational skills they learned, and how much they like being in control of their education.”
CELEBRATING 50 YEARS
“So much has happened in 50 years to strengthen the school,” says Gery. “Some families are with us just for the preschool years, while others may be with us for 13 or 14 years, sometimes longer if they are sending more than one child through the school. It’s their support and their vision that allows us to expand and grow.”
The school’s former life as a restaurant is not forgotten by town residents or the school’s leadership, however.
“Just last week, a woman came into the building because she was lost. It turns out she had her wedding reception at The 1775 House Restaurant,” says Gery. “People still remember this area before Route 2 was built. These buildings are part of the Lexington community.”
As part of the 50th anniversary celebration scheduled for June 14 (see above), the school is inviting members of the community who might have pictures, information, or artifacts from the early years of the school to stop by and share their history and memories.
“We would really love to hear from students and teachers from the very earliest years of the school,” says Gery. “When alums and past parents visit LMS, they often say that all they loved about their time here is still evident, while also being pleased to see we have solar panels, student gardens, an expanded library and, most of all, a middle school!”