The Next Plane of Development
At last owning its school property, Guadalupe Montessori in Silver City looks to a future as bright as that it offers students.
by Mattie Eagle
I arrive for my visit to Guadalupe Montessori School on foot and take the long way around, strolling through a lush garden full of mature greens, flowers, herbs and juvenile fruit trees. A small group of young children gathers around a flower bed labeled "pollinators," observing and making a bouquet for their classroom. Walking through the front door, I immediately notice the soft charm of the older building — wood trim, natural light, a large potted plant in the corner. Lunch is baking — my mouth waters a little at the scent of bacon-cheese quiche browning in the oven. Office Manager Annie Duffy warmly welcomes me and informs me that the quiche will be served with salad, fruit and fresh bread — part of the rotating menu of healthy, mostly organic meals prepared from scratch each day at the Silver City school.
Phil and Kathy Dahl-Bredine with their son and GMS graduate Dominic, his wife Shivani, and their son, Taven Sky, who begins in the GMS toddler program in August.
Duffy directs me into one of two Primary (ages three to six) classrooms. I am immediately struck by the calm, focused atmosphere in the room. The room is spacious with large windows, bordered by low shelves, decorated with plants and pictures, and furnished with small tables and chairs. One boy sits at a table by himself, so engrossed in painting with watercolors that he doesn't notice me watching. Two older girls are cooperatively tracing and drawing a map of the world from a map puzzle with pieces shaped like each continent and the oceans.
Another girl approaches the teacher, Samantha Friedman, asking for help with the "number rods." Friedman helps the student lay a mat on the floor and carry rods of different lengths, each with a different number of alternating red and blue sections, one at a time onto the mat. Together, they lay the rods next to one another, starting with the "10" rod (five blue sections and five red sections), and aligning them so the child can see how the length and quantity of red and blue sections decrease down to the "one" rod.
Friedman explains to me that this activity demonstrates some of the underlying tenets of Montessori philosophy: that the brain develops by directing the hand to do something meaningful, and by using the senses. Instead of counting aloud to 10, or counting 10 objects, the child manipulates these rods to learn "10" in a deeply sensory and experiential way — visually, tactilely and spatially. Even more interesting, as the child explores the rods and their relationship to one another, she develops important executive functions in her brain such as self-direction, creativity and problem-solving.
Total commitment to "pure" Montessori philosophy as evidenced by this precise use of the number rods is unusual. Many schools are "inspired" by the pedagogy developed by Dr. Maria Montessori in the early 1900s. But Guadalupe Montessori School (GMS) is recognized by the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), an international organization founded to protect the integrity of Montessori's methods, meaning GMS passes regular program audits based on strict international standards.
It is May when I visit GMS, near the end of the 2012-2013 school year. The following day, May 21, officers of the GMS Board of Directors will sign closing documents to purchase the portion of St. Mary's where the school has been located since 1989. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, Kan., have owned the St. Mary's property in Silver City for more than 80 years. Marcia Allen, president of the Sisters community, tells me later that the Sisters were very glad when GMS approached them about buying, as the school is true to the purpose and spirit of the property: "We are proud to have them there; we couldn't ask for better neighbors." St. Mary's has a rich history of use for education and community outreach: Some Silver City residents attended a Catholic school in the buildings now occupied by Guadalupe Montessori, and other buildings on the grounds once housed El Refugio shelter for women and children and served as offices for Life Quest's Early Childhood Intervention Program.
I move from the classroom into the warm, cave-like office in the center of the school's circular layout, to ask school director Ellen Gore about the purchase and its impact on the school. She lights up and emphasizes to me how owning the building and grounds gives the school ownership, empowerment and increased visibility within the community. "The Sisters have been very generous to the school all along, but they have wanted to sell this property for over 15 years," she explains. "Our lease was on a 30-day notice agreement. This really is the perfect building for us, so it makes sense for us to take greater ownership."
I can see why the school is excited to acquire the property. They have obviously invested a lot in building playgrounds, developing a beautiful one-third-acre garden, and improving the buildings and grounds.
Gore goes on, "Actually there was a Sister who was part of the Catholic school, Sister Neria, who had a vision for a Montessori school here long ago. And Kathy Dahl-Bredine had her eye on the building for quite a while when she was looking for a place to start the school, so I think it is very sweet that their dreams came together even after Sister Neria was gone. I see our ownership of the site as a fulfillment of these visions. It really symbolizes the fact that we are a long-lived part of the community that is here to stay."
I was lucky enough to meet with Kathy Dahl-Bredine, the founder of Guadalupe Montessori, who currently lives in Oaxaca, Mexico, doing rural service projects. Now in her early 70s, Dahl-Bredine's face reflects her years of service work and time in the New Mexican and Mexican sun, warmly crinkling into a smile as she remembers the beginnings of GMS and its circular relationship with the St. Mary's property. Kathy and Phil Dahl-Bredine moved their family to Silver City from Wisconsin in 1979, and she had the goal of opening a Montessori school here (her third, as it turns out).
The Sisters at St. Mary's were supportive of the idea, and gave her one room of their Catholic elementary school, which was still operating on the property at the time. The original class of 10 children, including two of the Dahl-Bredines' own children, grew quickly. The fledgling school soon moved to a space at St. Vincent's, then to the current location of Agape school, and then, in 1989, GMS was invited to move back to St. Mary's, as the Catholic school had closed and other uses of the building had ceased.
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