When Orange County’s first Montessori school opened its doors in 1962, it left some Herculean footsteps for others to follow. For starters, Heritage Montessori School has a personal connection to Dr. Maria Montessori: Its matriarch, Qudsia Ruston, was her only godchild. Ruston was a second-generation Montessori practitioner whose mother worked alongside Dr. Montessori back in India in 1939.
“She had all that lineage,” says Audrey Kelly, Executive Director of Heritage Montessori’s three schools. “She really embodied it in the love of learning, openness to growth and wanting to idealize the principals.”
Eight years later, when Guiliana De Frenza opened her own Montessori school in 1970, most parents were still unfamiliar with the philosophy.
“It was just starting,” says De Frenza, owner of Harbor Mesa Montessori. “Little by little, and little by little, they kept on coming.”
Today, it seems, there are as many Montessori schools in Orange County as there are Starbucks. Part of this growth can be attributed to the positive experiences enjoyed by early students, who now choose to continue the tradition with their own children. Often, these generations of Montessori learners even share the love of their own school with their kids.
By Michelle Thompson
For Jennifer Johnson-Smith, Montessori Harbor Mesa School wasn’t just a spot to learn. It was a place where she played sports, learned French, and even grieved the death of her father. It was a second home.
“You just felt the love,” says Johnson-Smith, 32. “We were a big family. My experience at the Montessori was the best I’ve ever had in a school – period.”
Some 20 years later, she returned to the Costa Mesa school – this time with her five-year-old daughter, Trinity. The Johnson-Smiths are among several multigenerational families attending Montessori Harbor Mesa, founded in 1970.
“I always said, ‘If I have any kids, I want my child to have the same experience I had,” says Johnson-Smith, who now works as an optometric technician. “I knew my daughter was going to be in good hands. I knew it right off the bat.”
As a little girl, Johnson-Smith cherished her days spent at Montessori Harbor Mesa. She enrolled as a kindergarten student and remained until Grade Six, the last level the school teaches. She passed the time participating in arts, playing sports and, of course, learning.
But the school wasn’t just a place for education. For Johnson-Smith, it was also where she grieved the death of her father, who died when she was seven years old.
“They did everything and beyond,” she recalls. “I remember there were some times when I would break down in the middle of the classroom. The teachers literally pulled me to the side and just talked to me and coached me. It made me feel like I was going through counseling.
“They didn’t have to do that. They could have sent me home.”
It was a strong reminder of the nurturing world Johnson-Smith was ensconced in. The school left such an indelible impression, that Johnson-Smith can still easily riddle off her former teachers’ names.
Though those instructors have since left the school, its owner Giuliana De Frenza remains. When it was time to enroll her own daughter in school, De Frenza’s presence immediately put Johnson-Smith at ease.
“Knowing that she was still there, I didn’t even question it,” she says. “I have nothing but fond memories. All my memories are wonderful, all my teachers were wonderful.”
And now, Johnson-Smith’s daughter is now thriving at a school where her mom once did the same.
“I’m excited,” she says. “It’s exciting to see what my daughter is going to learn. I’m excited to see what experiences she’s going to have.”
Ivy Crest Montessori
Little Elise Rosales and her mom, Danica, don’t always agree on everything. They might quarrel over outfit choices, or perhaps the evening’s dinner selection. But there’s one area mom and five-year-old daughter are on the same page: their opinion of Fullerton’s Ivy Crest Montessori school.
“I like it very much,” says Elise, who began attending the school at age four. “It’s the best school ever and it takes very good care of me.”
Her mom, 37-year-old Rosales, also has high praise for the school established in 1970. Rosales attended the same school from the age of three through eight, albeit nearly 30 years ago. Today, she recalls her Montessori experience with pleasure.
“I loved my teachers and exploring the sensorial materials that were placed out for us,” says Rosales, who now works as a kindergarten teacher. “I recall how excited I felt when it was time to choose a hands-on activity from the shelf after my seatwork was complete, especially when a new activity was introduced. I remember being so absorbed in using an ice cube tray, water dropper, and food coloring to see the changes in mixing colors together.
“Being able to make my own choices during that independent time was empowering and exciting. I also recall having lots of one-on-one attention from my teacher as I was practicing reading books.”
Ivy Crest Montessori wasn’t the first stop for Rosales’ daughter. She previously attended two schools that were non-Montessori.
Ultimately, Rosales brought Elise to a place that she herself cherished as a child. When she revisited it, she was blown away all over again. She was impressed with the school’s “stunning” selection of materials and the presence of three teachers in her daughter’s classroom.
“I chose this particular Montessori because I trusted that they were steadfastly committed to the philosophy set forth by Maria Montessori. The staff was so caring, and positive,” she says. “I’m amazed at how independent and mindful the children behave in their classroom as they roll out their mats to work with their activities.”
When Rosales returned to the school, she noted that the same methods and materials were being used. A water play area had since been added, though, along with a performing arts theater. The school itself has expanded.
Rosales isn’t the only one impressed with the school. Her daughter loves it, too.
“They’re very sweet and kind and take very good care of me,” says Elise. “They let us learn a whole bunch, and I like it.”
Rehanna Eaton is a staunch believer in keeping Montessori in the family. After all, she’s a third-generation Montessorian whose lineage traces back to Dr. Maria Montessori herself. Eaton’s grandmother studied with the famed educator in India, and later helped globally popularize the educational approach. Eaton’s mom, meanwhile, founded Orange County’s first Montessori.
Eaton is keeping up with family tradition; she’s director of Huntington Beach Heritage Montessori. Her two children, 18-year-old Seth and 16-year-old Natalie, studied at the school from toddlerhood through Grade Five.
“The world is a different place for my children than it was for me; however, the Montessori method is adaptable to any place and time because it takes advantage of how children grow and develop naturally,” says Eaton.
“No matter how the world changes, Montessori children will develop to their fullest potential. Studies show that Montessori children become leaders, but can work collaboratively, and have a strong sense of integrity and moral values. I can’t think of another method of education that leads to such well-adjusted and motivated adults.”
Eaton, 54, attended a Santa Monica Montessori school as a child. She recalls fondly how her educational experience helped foster creativity, self-confidence and the freedom to explore. It also helped test her limits, overcome challenges and experience the consequences of actions. Her enthusiasm for the teaching philosophy was, and continues to be, unbridled.
“I never really left Montessori, or should I say Montessori never left me?” says Eaton. “It’s something that stays with you throughout your life. Today, I take great joy in helping current students and parents by applying my experiences not only as a teacher, but also as a Montessori student.”
Today, Eaton credits the Montessori teaching method for many of her children’s accomplishments. Her son has been accepted into Columbia University, where he’ll major in History. Their experience translates into small victories, too. For example, when Eaton asked her son to organize the family’s messy garage, he used his Montessori teachings to do so.
“As he began the task, it was like he was back in the Montessori classroom,” she recalls. “He gathered all like items in piles and was then able to quickly sort them and put everything where it belonged.
“He needed no assistance and, like the quintessential Montessori student, he had a very satisfied look on his face when he was done. The intrinsic feeling of satisfaction at having conquered this task is the very basis for all his accomplishments.”