Montessori program targets older students

Alternative approach lets children lead class

By Tyler Leeds / The Bulletin

Published Aug 5, 2014 at 12:01AM

Two years after opening its doors, Bend’s only Montessori school for elementary-age children has experienced both success and setbacks in trying to persuade parents to continue their children’s alternative education beyond preschool.

Sunnyside Montessori opened in fall 2012 on the second floor of the First United Methodist Church in downtown Bend, beginning with a kindergarten-through-second-grade class of three students that grew to six by the year’s end. Last fall, the number jumped to eight. Over this time frame, the business also grew, purchasing the Bend Montessori School, a preschool dating back to 1986, and adopting the older school’s name.

Nonetheless, Jessica Born, the Bend Montessori School’s director, said she hasn’t yet finalized an elementary class for the coming year, as enrollment hasn’t yet justified one.

“Parents are fine and happy with Montessori for preschool,” Born said. “But there is some hesitancy to keep going on with elementary. Plus, it’s hard to compete with free, as we are a tuition-paying school. But I think we can eventually get enough students to buy into the philosophy and approach so that (they) may continue on.”

A Montessori education allows students to direct their own learning, as children engage with materials spread across the classroom based on their own learning. As a result, the pacing of subjects is not controlled by teachers or delineated schedules. Practitioners say this approach instills self-motivation and a love of learning.

Another aspect that sets Montessori apart is the combination of students of different ages within one classroom.

“Younger students get the opportunity to look up to and learn from older students,” Born said. “And the older students get the opportunity to become more solidified when teaching and have the younger ones look up to them. It’s really beautiful, watching them work together. I think they learn much more from each other than they could from me.”

According to the Oregon Montessori Association, about 3,000 students statewide are enrolled in Montessori programs, up from about 2,500 two years ago. However, only between 600 and 700 of those are in elementary school, while the majority of the rest are preschoolers.

Misha Strunk, an assistant instructor at Bend Montessori, saw her own son, Wilhelm, now 11, successfully transition from Montessori to a traditional elementary.

“He had to learn a different lingo in the school, which was hard at first,” Strunk said. “He’d say, ‘Oh, I know how to do this. I just didn’t know the words they were using.’ But besides that, he’s done great in the transition, and I don’t think there’s anything to be worried about.”

Louise Wilson, who leads the elementary program, said she thinks the slow start to enrollment can be linked to “a mentality that we have great public schools in Bend.

“Which is true,” Wilson said. “But, like in Portland, where you can go K-12 in Montessori, we need to have options for different students.”

Born hopes to build a future for her kindergarten-through-second-grade school in her preschool class, which is currently at capacity with 18 students.

“It takes time to grow, and with the preschool, we’re now going to focus on communicating with parents about what Montessori is, so when their kids get to age 4, they might embrace the idea and choose to continue,” Born said. “It’s definitely our goal to eventually add 9- to 12-year-olds, so you could finish out elementary. But it’s going to take a commitment from parents who want that full experience.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2160,

tleeds@bendbulletin.com