My wife, Dr. Betty Chester, and I started the Chester Newton Charter and Montessori School in 1996. Our 20 students ranged from pre-school to 2nd grade.
Because parents liked our school so well, we kept adding grades. Four years later we received our middle school charter. We named that school the Sunnyside Charter and Montessori School.
In the early 1900s Maria Montessori developed an approach to education that soon grew to world-wide popularity. Children of all ages plan their own work contracts and schedules.
While many times students in the same class do read from the same books, face the same direction, and follow the same teacher, those same students many other times do their own things that they have designated in their contracts.
As students decide what to study and when to study it, they are not left on their own. If a student is having trouble getting to a task (let's face it-that includes them all), the teacher makes suggestions and urges each child on with at first gentle then more insistent strategies. This takes special training. We pay for teachers to attend training workshops. Educators consider a Montessori Certification equivalent to a master's degree.
A planned learning environment is crucial. Study materials reflecting math, science, reading, language, and social growth patterns are carefully selected and arranged in classrooms to reflect learning levels, depending on a student's age. Multi-grades are in each classroom, 1st-3rd in one room, 4th-6th in another, and a combined middle school. It reminds me of the one-room schoolhouse I attended in rural Ohio. As a first grader, I remember learning what third graders recited.
By the end of a school year, even resistant students feel positive about having to make responsible independent study decisions within the learning environment provided for them. The hope is for them to carry this decision-making ability into their lives beyond schooling.
This approach does more than urge students to develop initiative at an early age. This freedom and independence of thought and choices reflect a basic tenet of our nation's fabric: not only the ability but also the right to think for yourself and make many of your own decisions.
We feel the Montessori approach does much more to reflect the meaning of America than a "religious" approach or a "conservative" approach. America became a nation to gain freedom from religious approaches. And if the heritage of our founding fathers had been conservative, like some in education seem to believe, then we would not have a nation at all.
As Montessori education moved to America, it became priced out of reach for many families. Private Montessori schools sprang up across our country that cost many thousands of dollars in tuition. Betty knows. She built the first one in Flagstaff in the early 1980s.
It became our mission to make this alternative educational process available to the children of Camp Verde.
Give them a safe and attractive environment, Montessori said, and kids will want to learn. Our schools are small enough to spot and stop bullying and gang growth promptly.
Charter schools in Arizona are free public schools. The Arizona Legislature, however, shorts them millions of dollars below the already severely reduced amount given to traditional schools. Yet charter schools are recognized as out-performing traditional public schools. Why are charter schools given less money for doing a better job? Ask your legislator.
Dr. Dowling G. Campbell is co-founder of Chester Newton Charter and Montessori School at 30 E. 260, Camp Verde, at the intersection with Salt Mine Road. Call (928) 567-2363.