Maria Montessori, born in Italy in 1870 (long before most women studied much of anything), was a doctor and educator. She developed a child-centered approach to learning that is followed today in schools around the world. Her ideas were revolutionary at the time and in many ways still are. Montessori saw independence as the aim of education, and to this end she developed materials and concepts that can be found in true Montessori schools throughout the world.

Because Montessori schools offer small classes and an approach to education that is individualized, collaborative and hands-on, they are usually private and expensive. But The Patagonia Montessori School is a public charter school, which means that it is supported by public funds and there is no tuition for grades K-8. The school in Patagonia has three teachers. Jamie Lattanzio is the primary teacher, Gary Grenier teaches the elementary level, and Jessie Beebe is the middle school teacher as well as the principal. Preschool children are 3-6 years old. The elementary group is 6-10 years old, and the oldest students are 10-14.

The three classrooms are bright and clean, offering a wealth of learning materials. In the primary area youngsters practice the simple tasks of childhood, tying shoes, putting on aprons, pouring water, buttoning jackets. There is a math corner where everything is based on the number 10 and Montessori-developed materials such as blocks and beads help counting and give a visual sense of simple fractions and geometry. The materials in the room are designed to develop small motor skills, language, geography, and science, as well as music and art. Throughout Montessori learning, children are encouraged to handle and manipulate materials. They are also given plenty of time to work on a project that interests them.

In the elementary classroom, many of the same materials are there again, but with older children they are used in more sophisticated ways. The emphasis in the elementary environment is on collaboration, and children learn from one another. The students work at their own pace. The teacher makes sure they are receiving the fundamentals, but this seems to happen naturally as one project flows into another. Grenier keeps track of how and what is being learned, but there are no grades. From time to time there are tests which, he says, the children enjoy.

And testing is one of the proud achievements of Patagonia’s Montessori School. Because it is a charter school, students must take Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) tests, which measure proficiency in writing, reading, math, and science statewide. According to Principal Beebe, Montessori students score significantly higher than those at other schools in the area.

The older children have their own classroom, which includes a large activity room where other classes also can do art or dance or music. At the middle school level, state curriculum requirements are followed, but the teaching and learning happen much as in the early grades, with older students helping younger ones. Beebe is always there to guide or explain and to chart the learning of each child.

Although the school receives state funding, it is not equivalent to what a public school receives and the budget is tight. There is a small playground, but no gym or school bus route (although there is a big van, which goes on lots of field trips). Volunteers are an invaluable part of the mix.

Beebe says the teachers and the Board would love to see a full roster of students. Right now there are between 25 and 30 children enrolled. Beebe says 45 would be ideal.

The school is planning an open house on Monday, August 5, from 10 AM to noon and from 5 to 7 PM. Families are encouraged to see the Montessori School as a choice for their children’s education.