New Building, Grounds Nearly Complete
By Peter Shelton
RIDGWAY – Everything at the new Mountain Trails Montessori School in Ridgway is size appropriate: the beautifully crafted wooden chairs and tables scaled for little bodies, the kid-height shelves and sinks, the scaled-down picnic tables in the yard. Even the toilets are low enough that a 3-year-old can use them on her own.
“Everything is set up so they can be independent,” said Wendy Shima, who with her mother, Gail Jensen, has built the new facility on several grassy lots at the corner of North Cora and Charles streets. “Our main goal is to instill a sense of confidence. And a real desire to become competent, a joy in learning.”
The school opens Thursday, Sept. 6, with both primary and elementary classes. Primary covers ages 2 ½-six. Elementary is for kids 6-9. There are spaces for 10 elementary students and 20 primary students. Maria Montessori, the Italian physician and educator whose first school, in 1906, was called the Casa dei Bambini, wanted the classrooms to be mixed-age. “The littler kids learn from the big kids,” Shima said, “and the bigger kids gain a lot of confidence teaching the younger ones.”
Two teachers will be in each classroom. Shima and Jensen are both Montessori-trained; Jensen retired to Ridgway after 22 years of teaching at a Montessori school in Manhattan Beach, Calif. In addition, they have hired Amy Baer, another Montessori-certified teacher who worked most recently at the Ridgway Elementary pre-school, and Erica Arsenault, from Rico, is now in training via new online Montessori courses. (The closest in-person training is in Denver.)
Shima has scheduled an open house on Saturday, Aug. 25 from 10 a.m. to noon, and the entire community is welcome.
Maria Montessori believed in an orderly arrangement of space, in the “beauty, cleanliness and harmony” of the school environment, and Shima and Jensen certainly achieved that with the new building. The initial design was done by Ridgway designer Lynn Kircher, and the final drawings were produced by architect John Baskfield. Construction was by Eric Dickerson. The two spacious classrooms are joined by a central reception/library area. The floors are soft cork. The stucco color and the Victorian window design are tributes to the old falling-down stone building that stood on a part of the lot. “We considered remodeling and using the old building,” Shima said. “We’ve heard that it might have been a town hall at one time, and maybe a café. But it was barely standing, and filled with black mold.” They did keep some of the big trees on the property, which now shade the playground and an outdoor workspace. “And we found a few horseshoes, which we kept” for good luck, Shima said.
On nice days, kids will be able to take their projects outside. That’s part of the Montessori philosophy, too: children choose the things they want to learn, the projects they want to work on.
Shima listed the three learning styles: hands-on, visual, and auditory (language). The Montessori materials are designed, with the teacher’s input, to develop all three, but clearly directed by the child’s interest. The students choose their own activities from the shelves of unique Montessori-designed materials and work at them in uninterrupted blocks of time, for as long as they want. Their “absorbent minds” discover the purpose of an activity on their own. The materials, be they blocks or bells or puzzles, explore color, sound, temperature, texture, and weight. With Montessori’s “sensorial materials,” Shima said, “the child will be able to figure out the point of the activity without being told.”
She showed me two examples, one for the very young and another for older kids. “Table washing, for example. The primary students come in every morning and wash the tables. Always from left to right, the way we read. And with hand movements that are a precursor to writing. Montessori observed the children’s desire to repeat things over and over. She was brilliant at concepts that would allow a kinetic understanding of things that we would normally be made to memorize.”
She brought out another example, a Montessori binomial cube. Her daughter Cricket and a friend, Ely Patterson, came over. By taking it apart and rebuilding it, the kids were using color and proportional shapes to sneak up on what will eventually become basic algebra. The cube has built-in “control of error” features: if when you’re done the sides close and the top fits, the child knows she’s done it right. “I did it myself,” Cricket chirped.
There is still a lot to do before opening. Play structures were being delivered to the yard as landscaper Susan Maybach and her crew worked. The fence still needs to go in, and napping cots must be unpacked and assembled. But Shima expects to be ready for the school year, which runs for 10 months, from September to June. Families can sign up for any time. School runs five days a week, full days for elementary and full or morning half days for the primary kids.
New Building, Grounds Nearly Complete