COLUMBIA — Charles Hoover wanted to send his son Garrett to a school that resonated with his life philosophy.
So the Columbia dad signed up his 4-year-old for pre-kindergarten at Columbia Montessori School.
The Montessori method has children learn in a natural, mixed-age group like the society they will live in as adults, according to the International Montessori Index.
Montessori is not a system for training children in academic studies, but a method of observing and supporting the natural development of children.
The educational practice helps children develop creativity, problem solving, critical thinking and time-management skills, to contribute to society and the environment, and to become fulfilled people, the organization says.
The basis of Montessori practice in the classroom is respected individual choice of research and work, and uninterrupted concentration rather than group lessons led by an adult.
Dennis Shapiro, editor of Public School Montessorian based in Minneapolis, said many Montessori teachers decide to start their own schools.
Because the Montessori name is in the public domain, no registration is required to start a school, he said.
"I like the idea that children learn through exploration, by exploring the work they do," Hoover said.
Hoover is among a growing number of Columbians opting for the Montessori method, an informal type of schooling that advocates have said helps children develop creativity, problem solving and critical thinking.
Four new Montessori schools will open in different parts of town for more than 100 children this September, bringing the total to six Montessori schools in Columbia.
Certified Montessori teacher, Myke Gemkow, 35, said the community expressed the desire for "high-quality education," so people are stepping up to address that desire.
“We are all a part of a larger Montessori movement,” said Gemkow, who has previously taught at Columbia's two current Montessori schools.
Gemkow will be the first to launch a Montessori school aimed at low-income families in the First Ward. His goal is to open Columbia Community Montessori on Sept. 2.
Gemkow is still deciding between two buildings for his new school. However, he said converting a house into a school setting would be "ideal" since it "feels less institutional and more like a part of a neighborhood."
Gemkow envisions a “school that serves the community around it.” He said his goal is to bring the “same high-quality educational experience” to families that can't afford Montessori tuition, which usually ranges between $700 and $900 a month depending on the child's age.
Providing an education for children from poor socioeconomic backgrounds coincides with the original concept created by Italian educator, Maria Montessori, about 100 years ago.
“Most of the families that will go to our school will pay from little to nothing,” Gemkow said.
Gemkow is earning money for his school through fundraising. For the first year, the school will enroll up to 15 children between ages 3 and 5.
“We’ll see if we get more as we go throughout the year,” Gemkow said.
Gemkow became a true believer of the Montessori ideas 12 years ago by observing his daughter, Madelynn, 14, who went to Columbia Montessori School.
“The Montessori method does an exceptional job of nurturing kids’ natural love of learning, and it helps to sustain that longer than other educational methodologies,” he said.
Children's House Montessori of Columbia is also expanding Montessori options in town by opening an elementary school at 1616 Windsor St. this fall that will enroll up to 50 children, said Mary Windmiller, executive director of the new school.
Windmiller said she likes that Montessori is expanding in Columbia and becoming available to more children.
"It's an excellent method that has proven to show results," she said.
Montessori Center for the Young Child, which is scheduled to open at 3407 Berrywood Drive right after Labor Day, will enroll up to 34 children, said the school's director, Bryony MacGregor.
Julie Grasela, a former toddler teacher at Children's House Montessori, plans to open Montessori Infants and Toddlers in September in her Columbia home. Grasela will serve up to 10 children from 6 weeks to 3 years.
"My hope is to have a continuum of Montessori education starting in infancy," she said.
Columbia Montessori School at 3 Anderson Ave. and Children's House Montessori at 915 Maryland Ave. are the Montessori schools in Columbia currently operating. The first opened in 1967, while the latter opened in 1972.
Michelle Graham, assistant director of Columbia Montessori School, said she isn't worried about the competition of having more Montessori schools in town.
"We think it's good that more schools are opening up to give kids the Montessori education," she said.
Both schools said they recreated a learning environment based on Maria Montessori's key principles: "Respect the environment," "Respect yourself" and "Respect others."
Charles Hoover said the Montessori philosophy of respect is among his key principles.
"That's the main reason why we sent Garrett to a Montessori school," Hoover said.
Ariel Robinson, a teacher at Columbia Montessori School, said she was surprised when she first walked into a Montessori classroom. "Everything is small and low because it's geared toward children," she said.
Small tables less than 2 feet high are painted in different colors and have tiny chairs of a similar height. Children ages 3 to 6 sit on rugs or at the tables performing activities of their personal interest.
In general, Montessori schools cost more because of the specialized materials and teacher certification, said Holly Kroon, a teacher at the Columbia Montessori School. An entirely furnished and equipped classroom can cost $25,000 or more.
Kroon said students are free to choose what they want to do. "If they can do things on their own, they can be responsible for themselves," she said.
Although children at a Montessori school aren't asked to share, Kroon said they appear to do a lot of sharing because it makes them feel good. "It comes more naturally if you aren't forcing them," Kroon said
Learning from one another and the surrounding environment is one of the key principles of the Montessori method. Teachers are mainly guides who direct children to learning activities, Kroon said.
"When you walk in into a Montessori classroom, ideally, you should not immediately feel the presence of a teacher," she said.
Graham said much of the students' work "is pretty simple, but it's pretty amazing when it teaches the kid."
Most activities include simple tasks aimed at building practical life skills, as well as academic skills in language, math, culture and geography.
"Children learn the environment through their senses by touching and feeling various objects," Kroon said. "If there is more than one sense involved at a time, then it helps children remember things better."
Garrett Hoover, 4, loves practicing the alphabet by pronouncing the sounds, then tracing a shape of the matching letter on sandpaper and, finally, writing it in the coffee writing box. "I like the way it feels," he said.
Spelling the word "jet" by putting the letters together in a straight line did not seem complicated to Garrett. "My mom's name starts with the letter 'J'," he said.
Joan Hermsen, Garrett's mother, said the Montessori method taught her how to become a better parent. After observing how teachers interact with her son, Hermsen said she was able to bring some of the teaching techniques home.
"We engage Garrett with writing letters the same way he does at school," she said.
Kroon said writing should come before reading because it's more concrete than reading."With writing, children are creating the meaning as opposed to having that meaning created for them," she added.
The same sensory technique applies to solving puzzles with numbers and geometrical shapes. Through the sense of touch and feel, children are capable of grasping simple mathematical concepts, Kroon said.
Speaking of her children, Max, 3, and Stella, 5, Anne Chegwidden said, "I think they’ve really flourished here."
When Stella started going to Columbia Montessori School last spring, she was all about the "practical life" activities, Chegwidden said. Water pouring and color mixing were among her favorite daily chores.
Chegwidden said she was concerned that Stella would just focus on one thing. "What we found, Stella just wanted to master it, and she moved through everything really quickly,” she added.
Graham said everything the children learn will have an extension after they leave.
Garrett Hoover said he already sees how the school is helping him.
"They teach us how to do the work," said Garrett, who dreams of living on the moon forever. "If you want to be an astronaut, you have to know a lot of things."