The Vineyard Montessori School (VMS), which currently serves children in preschool through third grade, will add a fourth-grade curriculum to its program next fall. The school’s board of trustees voted the change in December, along with several amendments to the school bylaws.
The board’s decision to add fourth grade was based on a need expressed by parents in the school community, head of school Debbie Jernegan told The Times in an interview last week. She said the board is also considering the possibility of adding a toddler program, as well as fifth grade, in the future.
“There’s a lot of strategic planning going on right now at the board of trustees’ level,” she said. “How to meet the needs of the whole child that we think would be important.”
A group of parents that embraced the principles and educational philosophy of Dr. Maria Montessori, who became Italy’s first female physician in 1895, founded VMS in 1975. Dr. Montessori’s background in science led her to develop an educational program based on observation and experimentation.
The teaching methods she created focus on children learning academic subjects as well as practical life skills in multi-age classrooms, at their own pace, with few texts, no homework, no tests, and no grades, according to articles on the International Montessori Council’s website.
After being housed at several locations, VMS purchased its present facility at 286 Main Street, at the corner of Tashmoo Avenue, in Vineyard Haven. The school began with a primary program for children ages 2.9 through 6, and then added an elementary class for children ages 6 to 9 in 1995.
More than a preschool
Currently, it is the only private elementary school option for Island parents, Ms. Jernegan said. There are 48 students enrolled Island-wide, and one that commutes from Falmouth. Last Tuesday, Ms. Jernegan gave The Times a tour of the school, which includes two primary classrooms for children ages 2.9 to 6 and one elementary classroom, for children ages 6 to 9.
Primary lead teacher Chris Rasmussen and her assistant, Holly Bruguiere, work with a class of 20 children, as do primary lead teacher Deneen Convery and her assistant, Rebecca Deloughne. Irene Wendt, the lead teacher in the elementary classroom, and her assistant, Holly Jackson, have a class of 9 students, in grades one to three.
In all three classrooms, the children were busily engaged in a variety of activities. Some sat side by side in companionable silence, as they worked separately on math problems or read books. Others chatted while they put puzzles together or practiced writing letters or numbers.
Kindergartner Maverick Pil excitedly showed everyone a bubbling bowl of yeast, his latest science experiment. Connor Dunham was absorbed in mixing colors and blowing bubbles, as he learned about the properties of water. Third-grader Tomas Carreno was writing a report about the black caiman alligator from research he did online, while his fellow third-grader Matthew Coggins tackled one on the Tasmanian devil.
Based on her observations that children teach themselves, Dr. Montessori designed a “prepared environment” in which children could freely choose from a number of developmentally appropriate activities, according to the VMS website.
The school’s two primary classrooms are organized into five major areas, practical life, sensorial, language, math, and cultural studies. The practical life area, for example, has activities that help a child with everyday skills to help them become more independent, Ms. Rasmussen pointed out in her classroom. There are materials to pour, spoon, and polish, and snacks to prepare and offer to friends. And part of any lesson is cleaning up and putting materials away when it’s done.
“The children learn how to take chaos and make a sense of order,” Ms. Rasmussen said.
Rows of desks are conspicuously absent from the classrooms, which gives them a feeling of spaciousness. Instead there are small tables and chairs, and even a few scaled-down couches.
“We call it the children’s house; everything is their size,” Ms. Convery said. “The teachers kind of step back, and they care for the environment; they water the plants, they wash the tables, they have their own snacks.”
Learning by choice
There is no time limit on any activity. Ms. Rasmussen said children are encouraged to repeat activities, because the more they work on mastering a lesson, the more a concept becomes ingrained.
Since children work at their own pace, the teachers agreed it takes vigilance on their part to keep track of everyone’s activities and progress, and to know when to steer them in another direction.
“If I saw a student worked on language for two days in a row, and started to forget some of the math I had just given a lesson on, I might say, okay, let’s take a break in this lesson, and review a little of the math we’ve been working on,” Ms. Wendt said. “At the beginning of the week we do have to review exactly what the students have done the week before, to just keep them on top of things and make sure they are challenged.”
In addition to having uninterrupted time to spend on lessons, the children are free to move about the room from one activity to another.
“Our job as Montessori teachers is to observe the children, see where their interests are, follow their interests, and then give them lessons, based on their interests,” Ms. Rasmussen explained. “We basically gear the curriculum individually to the child.”
Ms. Wendt said the children’s activity choices are controlled, to a degree. “There are a lot of things they may be working on at the same time, so they can still make choices to gain the independence, but it’s still within a certain realm, so that I know it’s still a challenge for them,” she said.
Ms. Wendt said she thinks multiage classrooms are one of the school’s most positive aspects. “The younger ones learn from the older kids, and the older kids learn to teach and gain patience and leadership skills, which is very important.”
Assessment without tests
Ms. Jernegan said that factors into how VMS assesses student learning, since unlike the public schools, no testing is done.
“How you gauge whether a child is learning and going to the next step is how they interpret the information and teach it to another child,” Ms. Jernegan said. “So their mastery of whatever subject they’re learning is done through them showing each other and teaching to the other children, the younger children. And that’s where that three years comes in. When they’re actually teaching it and eventually have internalized the information, then they’re ready to teach it and they know it.”
Although VMS does not have “core standards” as the public schools do, Ms. Jernegan said there are milestones and achievements in development that children need to make before they move up into the elementary classroom.
“I’ve heard a great deal of success stories for the children who graduate from this school and moved on to public or other schools,” Ms. Jernegan said. “There is a transition period, though, because obviously the learning is a different style.”
If a child has a learning difficulty, Ms. Jernegan said it would be identified at VMS and services accessed through the school in the town where the child lives.
Yearly tuition at VMS is $8,301 for five half days, 8:30 am to noon, in the primary classrooms; $9,554 for five full days, 8:30 am to 2:30 am, primary and elementary classrooms; and $10,824 five extended days, 8:30 am to 4 pm, for all ages and grades. There are payment plans available, and scholarships funded by grants.
Ms. Jernegan said VMS is enrolling children now for next fall. She suggests that interested parents call and schedule a visit to the school to observe a classroom. Forms and more information about the school is available online at vineyardmontessori.com.
“One of the Montessori quotes is that we ‘foster a love of learning in every child,’” Ms. Jernegan said. “You can see that the children are really happy here, and they love being in school.”