Midtown Montessori: A unique approach to early learning

by Jen Hammons

Tucked away on the corner of 51st Street and Evanston Avenue is one of Midtown’s educational bright spots: Rousseau McClellan Montessori School 91. Housing 500 students, 70 staff, and 1 therapy dog, it is one of three Montessori schools in the Indianapolis Public Schools system. Originally located at 46th Street and Keystone Avenue, the school moved to its current location in the 1950s. The Montessori educational model, based on the work of Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori (1870–1952), was partially incorporated into the IPS district in 1979 and moved as a full-building program to Rousseau McClellan over 25 years ago.

According to the school’s mission statement, “At the heart of Montessori philosophy is the notion that each child is unique. Montessori challenges not only the intellectual/academic development of the child, but the emotional/moral/spiritual and physical characteristics as well.” Arthur Hochman, professor of early/middle childhood education at Butler University, says it’s this “clear sense of vision” that makes the Montessori model both different and effective. “This philosophy guides how instructors teach, talk to the students, everything. For some people, this is different enough from what they know to be suspect. It’s a different perception experience.” But with a Great Schools rating of 8 out of 10, a Community rating of 5 out of 5 stars, and a State rating of an A, that philosophy seems to be one that works. Hochman agrees: His daughter attended School 91 and is now studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. He beams, proud of her and of the Montessori values that got her there. “It’s not about grades,” he says. “The kids grow up wanting to do good work, to grow and learn.”

Hochman takes his student teachers to School 91 because he wants them to see great instruction. As a parent, professor, and educator, he sees the value of the school from a variety of perspectives. Montessori teachers not only must earn an Indiana teaching license but also must complete a two-to-three-year Montessori training adapted to the grades they’ll be teaching. Although there are no training sites in Indiana, Margaret Higgs, principal of the school for 16 years, is undeterred. “It works, so we find a way to get the training we need.” In the past, trainers have come to the school and teachers have trained off-site. Today, teachers are training online with mentor support in a cohort group through the Center for Guided Montessori Studies, which offers 10 hours of graduate work that can be applied toward a master’s degree.

Anne Schollenberger, a parent volunteer, leads tours through the building for those interested in seeing Montessori education in progress. Obviously proud of the school’s achievements, Schollenberger begins the tour with the pre-Kindergarten kids. True to Montessori form, they are in a classroom of students ages 4 to 6, which includes kindergarteners. Children here work alone or in pairs or small groups on the floor, each engaged in manipulating small toys, colorful beads, or wooden letters. Older students gradually move to the more traditional desk model, in anticipation of entering more traditional learning environments in other schools. The pre-K program, part of all four kindergarten classrooms, is limited to the siblings of those already enrolled in the school. Due to the nature of the Montessori model, new students are not accepted after third grade. By then, says assistant principal Kathy Lause, “Their cultural habits and ours are already set.”

An essential element of the Montessori approach is allowing students to learn by discovery—to grasp and explore concepts by working with materials on their own instead of through direct instruction. The philosophy requires limited materials in a clean, harmonious, age-appropriate environment. In a third-grade classroom Schollenberger picks up a beautiful nested wooden cylinder, part of a graduated set showing variances in length and circumference, by its delicately carved handle. “See, this design reinforces how to hold a pencil,” she says.

As Professor Hochman explains, “It’s not A to B to C. It’s the function, theory, and reason behind each concept. It takes a little longer, but in the end kids comprehend instead of simply memorizing information or steps.” The use of carefully chosen learning materials is an integral part of each lesson. The materials are developed to target concepts that help students understand their world by interacting with it. Part of their education is learning how to handle the materials in the classroom, including how to roll their rugs between uses and how to put everything back in an organized manner. They learn to appreciate the beauty and value of these learning tools.

Cooperation and Respect

A key component behind the Montessori model is peace. A spirit of cooperation and respect is taught from the very first day, in all aspects of the curriculum and the facility. Each classroom displays a Peace Agreement, a list of expectations the students help develop. Each room also contains a “peace shelf” with materials students may use to work through their problems. Among the items is a flower, or peace rose. Whoever holds the flower may speak. When that student is done, he or she hands the flower to the next child who wants to say something. The teacher may guide as needed, but the expectation is that students will learn to solve disagreements for and by themselves, without adult intervention.

Although classroom expectations are still highlighted by teachers, the kids themselves reinforce the values they establish in their Peace agreement. The multi-age classrooms encourage students to learn from one another. That includes math, language, and social expectations. Visitors will notice what is affectionately called “the Montessori murmur”—students and adults talking in low, respectful tones. It’s the sound of engagement, a low hum of activity, compared to the sometimes-strained silence of traditional classrooms. Schollenberger points out that this is also a great environment for learning to work with distractions, which the world outside of the classroom often requires.

School 91 includes grades preK through 8, and contains 23 multi-age homerooms, three of which are dedicated to students with autism. Along with Lilly, the therapy dog who has been working here all 11 years of her life, CATs (Children As Teachers) assists these classrooms. These students are chosen from the third grade and trained to work with their peers in the autism classrooms.

Montessori divides education into five sections, particularly in the early grades: math, language, sensorial (a type of pre-math), practical life, and cultural subjects. Sensorial learning may involve identifying geometric shapes, or seeing how measurements are often broken into sets of 10. Practical life includes skills like pouring and tweezing. And cultural subjects encompass science and social studies as part of a cosmic curriculum. Instead of building up from the individual, the Montessori model begins with the whole. Starting with the entire universe, students learn how to break the world into its pieces, examine each piece, and discover how they fit together. When exploring the continents, for example, they study the great sacred places of the world. This leads to discovery of the various belief systems of the cultures that built them. They are able to see themselves as pieces of the larger picture, instead of “self” and “other.” Differences are not only celebrated but also expected.

A common question asked by parents considering the Montessori model is, “Will it prepare my child for the real world?” Hochman asserts that Montessori education encourages competition with the self. But what happens to kids once they leave this insular community? David Brown, a Meridian-Kessler resident with two children at the school, has given this question a lot of thought. “As a parent, there are times I’ve been concerned with the lack of competitiveness. I wonder how my kids are going to do out in the real world. I have to remind myself: This isn’t just school for my kids; this is a life-long commitment to our family’s core values. I’m willing to let my children make those decisions as they get older. I ask myself, and they’ll have to ask themselves as well, ‘What do I believe success really is?’”

Brown says the Montessori method “doesn’t just wipe away adolescence.” There are still conflicts, still growing pains. Students may grow up together in what feels like a big family, but like siblings, that doesn’t mean they’ll always get along. And, with no sports programs, families often have to look beyond the school walls for extracurricular activities that meet their interests. When a student moves into the highly competitive traditional environment for high school, it may be quite a shock. But Brown stands firm. In School 91, he says, “My wife and I found an education system that matches our values. Your belief system should be across the board. Not just in school, or in church, or at work. What you believe shouldn’t change depending on where you are. You live the way you believe.”

Nonetheless, he understands why Montessori could be a difficult choice for many families: “It is a fully different cultural and moral route.” People who choose it have to be willing to live differently in the world. They have to want to think for themselves, to have those moments of learning different values. For David and his family, it’s worth it. “If I wanted this education and I didn’t live in the IPS district, I’d have to pay a lot for it. When you know you can trust the education and guidance in the classroom, everything is better. Montessori is all about collaboration. It’s being a part of a grander scheme of things.” More at school website

Jen Hammons is a freelance writer based in SoBro. A version of this story appeared in the February/March 2015 issue of the magazine.

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