In 1962, Montessori Was Brought to Orange County. Today, there Are Now 75 Schools in OC based on the Multi-Sensory Method.
By Noë Gold
It may seem like a mystical cult to those who are unfamiliar with the concepts behind it, but there is nothing mysterious about the proliferation of schools in Orange County that profess their alignment with the Montessori Method — a scientific system that uses simple concepts of tactile involvement and concrete stimulation to provide children with the tools to be self-confident and knowledgeable, with a long-term structure that stays with them throughout their lives.
Dr. Maria Montessori of Italy brought to America the system of education that bears her name 100 years ago. Fifty years later, the system arrived in Orange County by way of one of her disciples, Qudsia Roston, who opened the first Montessori school in Fullerton called The Clavis School. Today, there are 75 Montessori schools in Orange County, and prospective parents gladly join the waiting lists to get their children in each year.
Dr. Maria Montessori’s first “Casa de Bambini” opened its doors to children in the tenement district of Rome, Italy on January 6th, 1907. Its name, “House of Children” in Italian, was meant to convey the idea of a unique children’s community of learners. Many of the earliest Montessori schools in the United States were named “House of Children” to honor the educational method’s founder, who realized there was a high level of intellectual and social ability in children at young ages.
Over the decades, Montessori has established itself throughout the world as a universal and replicable core of principles and values that serves children to reach their potential of high levels of intellectual and social development, finding its way to Orange County 50 years ago with Qudsia Roston’s Clavis School (now known as Heritage Montessori). The Clavis school opened its doors in 1962 in a small building off Chapman Avenue in Fullerton.
Mrs. Roston, who was virtually born into the Montessori community due to her residence as a child in Maria Montessori’s home, received her teacher training at the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) in 1955 in New Delhi. From there, she merited a scholarship to Boston College, whence she was recruited by actor, Tom Laughlin, for his school in Santa Monica. Then, the movement grew in Orange County to the flowering system it is today. With such locations as Cypress, Rancho Viejo, Huntington Beach and Newport Beach, Montessori schools have continued to provide families with a valid and valuable contribution to the world of early childhood education.
The dynamic educator planted the seeds for many of the existing Montessori schools still flourishing here in the OC. For example, Mrs. Roston introduced Dr. Primanti to Montessori because Mrs. Roston was his child’s teacher when he enrolled his son in her school. Because of their professional relationship, he went on to start the Primanti Montessori School. Montessori was so new and exciting and everyone at the time came to visit her schools and speak to her. She received callers such as Buckminster Fuller, Eddie Albert and Dinah Shore, who invited her to appear on her popular TV show. It was clear that more Montessori schools were needed and highly trained teachers were needed to staff them.
Dr. Anne Perrah is the owner, administrator and teacher of the Montessori Children’s House in Cypress, and has been at this location, serving children age 2 through 6 years since 1975. According to Dr. Perrah, although Montessori is generally considered a ‘Preschool’ by California’s State Licensing system, these young students are readily capable of learning “school” subjects. Dr. Montessori was a trained scientist and a physician, and the genius of her system is that its curriculum integrates early learning in reading, writing, math, science, geography, art, music, etc. in developmentally appropriate ways.
“This multi-sensory, multi-modal approach is an effective way for children to learn,” Dr. Perrah explains, “because it aligns naturally with brain development in the child. Based on what is currently understood about the brain and learning, as a system Montessori is highly compatible with the best and easiest ways for true learning to occur.”
The curriculum that Dr. Montessori established within her Method was based on her system of observing real children in real situations. She remained hands-on with her students, applying her universal and fundamental principles with children in virtually every free culture in the world.
The Montessori classroom is different from that of a typical school, and that is by design. Parents and visitors will not see rows of desks facing a teacher’s desk, because the Montessori system emphasizes children’s thriving in a learning community that is both experienced-based and child-oriented, rather than teacher-oriented. “This is a prepared environment where the children go about learning as a community … its very logical, very human and very real,” Perrah said.
“Creating a hands-on experience for the children, as well as mixed-age classrooms, allows for ‘the absorbent mind,’ which was one of Dr. Montessori’s main goals in her studies and teachings. Alongside the absorbent mind was Dr. Montessori’s theory to ‘never give the mind more than you give the hand.’ Observation is utilized in the Montessori environments and ensures that the children’s needs are being met with the proper tools remaining available.
“Rather than being told what to think, being graded or being told whether they are right or wrong, the provided materials allow for instructors to see how the children learn,” Perrah explained. “It gives them exposure to all of these different modalities and a very rich way of learning,” she added.
For Lindsay Journo, vice president for Academics LePort Schools, the medium of class materials is truly the Method. “There are a lot of resources in our facilities, and we put a great emphasis on them for a reason,” she says. “It’s very expensive to set up a Montessori room properly — upwards of $30,000. When you look at a classroom such as ours, you will notice new furniture made of high-quality materials — wood, glass, porcelain — a full range of materials, because you cannot have a Montessori Classroom without Montessori materials. We buy ours only from the best suppliers so that a child can have the best experience in math, science, all the disciplines.
“Aside from just being beautiful and inviting for the child, each material has specific characteristics. We call that ‘the isolation of difficulty.’ Each material is designed to teach one specific skill or concept at a time.
“For example, sandpaper letters. They teach one skill, and at the end of the session it’s self-correcting — the child can see if he has done it correctly. The children can see for themselves if it’s right or wrong. As soon as the teacher can see that a child has mastered the level, he can go on to the next level. The reason it’s tactile,” she continues, “is that children learn concretely before they learn abstractly. A lot of traditional educational approaches are taught by rote. When you are working in the Montessori method, you never forget the concepts as you grow up.”
Like many parents, Debbie Evans Warkentien, who has served as Head of School of the Rancho Viejo Montessori School in Rancho Santa Margarita since early 1996, finding the best educational system available began when she became a mom. “I dreamt of a school that treated each student as an individual,” she says, “a school that would teach children to think for themselves. I dreamt of a school that inspired children and instilled a love of learning.”
Warkentien’s location serves children from 18 months through 15 years old. Like the LePort schools, Rancho Viejo has a strong elementary and middle school program. “Montessori schools are developmentally appropriate — from toddlers all the way through middle school. Our emphasis is on child-directed learning,” she says.
For Dr. Perrah, who has been a teacher and close to the heart of Montessori Children’s House since it moved to Cypress in 1975, this 50th anniversary honors the legacy of Montessori schools throughout Orange County. She takes pride in her contribution to Montessori for 45 of those fifty years — teaching, providing parenting classes, as well as presenting at Montessori conferences in California and abroad. “I am deeply moved that there are those who still recognize the value that Montessori is providing our communities, for our children and for education,” she says. “Montessori is not a religious system, but rather a peaceful, holistic approach to education for life.”
Both Rancho Viejo and Dr. Perrah’s Children’s House have an emphasis on another of Dr. Montessori’s Hallmarks — getting in touch with nature. For the kids at both schools, that means literally digging the dirt. Rancho Viejo’s Middle School has a Farm Program, where students learn about and grow their own organic vegetables. And the Montessori Children’s House has a recently inaugurated Organic Garden for the young’uns.
For Dr. Perrah, this translates into the many field trips she has indulged in with her kids in the past 47 years. “The Montessori approach to education is that children learn primarily by doing and, therefore, they need to have a rich variety of first-hand, ‘Practical Life’ experiences in order for their learning to build toward a depth of true understanding,” she says. Among her more memorable trips are: a Tour of Japanese Deer Park in Buena Park; watching the Olympic torch runner come through for the 1984 Summer Olympics; visiting the strawberry fields at the intersection of Katella and Valley View — long since absorbed into the Cypress industrial park — to pick strawberries; exploring the tide pools along the Pacific coast, north of Laguna Beach.
With an impressive roster of former students such as Julia Child, Taylor Swift and Jeff Bezos — even Sean “P. Diddy” Combs — it can be said that Montessorians become leaders. “The world of the future needs innovators, creative thinkers, and mindful entrepreneurs. In Montessori schools around the world, children are learning to think for themselves, to think outside the box and to care about others,” Dr. Perrah says.
“Rather than focusing on the teacher’s ‘right’ answers, Montessori encourages children to think, to question, be involved in finding creative, humane solutions. Montessori encourages children to never stop learning — rather, to see learning as a way of life. As I am fond of saying, ‘Learning the right answers may get them through school, but learning how to learn will get them through life.’”