The North American Montessori Teachers Association (NAMTA) estimates that there are about 4,500 Montessori schools in the United States and about 20,000 worldwide. Ami Petter-Lipstein is the director of the Jewish Montessori Society, based in Highland Park, New Jersey. She has tracked more than 40 Jewish Montessoris in North America and about 30 in Israel.
A 2014 New York Times article noted the existence of a growing number of Montessori schools, “In Boca Raton, Fla., there are centrist Orthodox, Chabad Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Montessori preschools; Orthodox day schools have started Montessori programs in Houston and Cincinnati; and several New Jersey towns with large Jewish populations now have Montessori schools.”
In Los Angeles the only Jewish Montessori school is Darko Academy which was opened by Executive Director Shimon Shain in 2012. Shain explained that the purpose of the school was to provide a traditional Montessori education taught by teachers who were well trained in the discipline. Montessori learning is different from traditional methods. It emphasizes learning through all five senses, not just through listening, watching, or reading.
School Principal, Rabbi Aaron Parry explains the learning process at the school, “During the school year I picture our students experiencing everything from students sitting in a circle, playing a game to learning one another’s names and special qualities, to standing in line at a homeless shelter in Santa Monica dishing out nutritious food they’ve made for the homeless clients on Thanksgiving.”
The North American Montessori Teaching Academy, NAMTA, explains that Montessori creates a school where children, “Learn at their own, individual pace and according to their own choice of activities from hundreds of possibilities. Montessori classes place children in three-year age groups (3-6, 6-9, 9-12, and so on), forming communities in which the older children spontaneously share their knowledge with the younger ones. Montessori represents an entirely different approach to education.”
The century-old pedagogical method was developed by an Italian Catholic, Maria Montessori at the turn of the century. She developed the learning style to provide a well-rounded education to low income children living in the poorest homes in Rome, Italy. Today, the tenets have been adapted for the learning of Jewish knowledge.
Many teachers have found the pedagogical style of teaching at a traditional Jewish day-school is overly streamlined and uncreative compared with the vibrant nature of 21st-century Judaism. The reality is that most pre-schools now include elements of Montessori learning with wooden bricks and shapes, with the hands-on games that teach letters, with student-led learning styles and innovative classes.
Parents and educators choose Darko Montessori because it is a specialty school that offers a more personalized learning system. Shain explains, “We are used to learning everything with a front of class teacher and we rely on that teacher for knowledge. Montessori encourages students to find the knowledge for themselves. We teach Independence of learning and as stated in Pirkei Avot, we teach kids according to their way. We set quarterly and end of year goals, but within that framework, there is a large amount of flexibility in the curriculum”
Shain acknowledges that many schools use the Montessori label even though they may adhere to the tenets of the learning program in a vague and unstructured way. In order to see what is going on in different American Montessori schools, Shain spent some of the summer vacation on a cross country trip with his family. He visited as many Montessori schools as he could and found a large spread of styles and levels of authenticity, from Houston to the Amish schools of Pennsylvania.
“The Amish community had one of the most successful schools because they have a tradition of teaching multi-age children in a single school room. They understand the benefit of letting kids learn at their own pace. Montessori works very well for them.”
As Shain’s family made their way to Mount Rushmore, he knew his school was on the right track. “My children attend Darko and they were so excited to visit Mount Rushmore. They had learned about it at a deep level and their exuberance on reaching the National Memorial was sincere and validated everything I believe in.”
For more information about Darko Academy visit DarkoLA.org or call 323-244-4136