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Lessons of history. New reason for Montessori's appeal

STRANDS of hair slip from the pink ribbon down over Amy's eyes. But she's too busy to care. This five-year-old sits cross-legged on her own small rug, forming cardboard letters into a story. She spells, re-spells, and rearranges sentences without the frustration of erasing. When she's satisfied, she copies her story, in script, into a booklet. Amy is a pupil at Chicago's Near-North Montessori School. And all around her, 29 other youngsters - three- to six-year-olds - are pursuing their own projects. Under the guidance of one teacher and two assistants, some are writing W's and V's, not with pencil and paper, but with index fingers in sand for a more vivid tactile experience. Others are working with beads to understand math's place value system. And the little ones are learning to scoop, pour, button, buckle, and tie.

All have chosen their own activities. All know they must not interrupt their neighbors. The setting is easy on the eardrums, too, because everyone is involved. These qualities still attract parents to the Montessori method, even in the fast-track '80s. Over the years, Montessori pedagogical principles haven't changed a stitch. But the reasons for seeking these out have changed greatly. And today, even public school officials are turning to this early form of alternative education to keep the loyalty of upscale parents to beleaguered urban schools.

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The basic idea behind Montessori is a structured environment in which a child progresses at his own speed. There's much emphasis on working with hands-on materials because ``85 percent of a child's learning before he's five is through touch,'' says Urban Fleege, director of the Midwest Montessori Teacher Training Center in Chicago.

The approach was founded in Italy at the turn of the century by Maria Montessori, a physician whose first pupils were mentally retarded children hidden away in the asylums of Rome. When more traditional techniques proved fruitless, Dr. Montessori discovered that the asylum children could be reached on a sensory level. This breakthrough led to new methods and materials for all young children. Introduced in the United States in the early 1900s, the Montessori method experienced a brief flurry of popularity, then fell by the wayside as John Dewey's educational philosophy, which rejected authoritarian teaching methods, came to the fore.

By the late '50s, however, there was a Montessori revival in the US. Observers point to how the baby boom was crowding the nation's classrooms, giving rise to parental worries about quality. Some turned to Montessori to give their children a solid academic start. Then came the '60s, with its curriculum upheavals, giving parents new reasons to fret. Apprehensive that their youngsters wouldn't learn to read and write, they continued to turn to private Montessori programs for the basics.

Montessori teachers are trained not to cram heads with facts. Youngsters choose their own activity and their own pace. But they have to follow definite rules - proceeding in a prescribed sequence, finishing tasks, cleaning up, and leaving others alone. It's freer than most conventional schools, yet more structured than many in the ``alternative'' camp.

Today, parents have yet another concern: values and discipline. They don't want their children spitting expletives, talking back, and wiping jellied mouths on the draperies; and with both parents working, they don't have time to do the job themselves. Montessori helps take up the slack. ``Parents realize that moral aspects are very much a part of Montessori,'' without a religious connection, says Bretta Weiss, director of the American Montessori Society (AMS), a national accrediting organization in New York City.

``What drew me to Montessori as the parent of a three-year-old,'' says Carol Zsolnay, a working mother, ``was that children are taught responsibility, and they're taught to respect and understand each other's strengths and weaknesses.''

Contrary to common belief, many working parents today also look for an atmosphere that's unhurried. ``They want to be sure there's no stress at all,'' says Jacqueline Bergen, executive director of the Near-North School, which is at capacity enrollment of 300, from toddlers of two through eighth graders. Although some Montessori schools span from 11 months to 13 years, the majority concentrate on the highly impressionable years of three to six.

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Public school officials are aware of the Montessori cachet. Over the last decade, they have been using it in numerous cities to help reverse white flight. ``We thought it would attract Anglo parents to voluntarily send their young children (3- to 5-year-olds) to a part of the city that is primarily black and Hispanic,'' says Paula Biwer, Montessori coordinator at Mitchell Elementary School in Denver. ``We succeeded before the doors even opened.'' Next year Mitchell will expand its program to include the first grade.

Currently, about 50 Montessori programs operate in public schools across the nation, according to Jon Osterkorn, executive director of the Association Montessori Internationale - USA (AMI) in San Francisco, a national accrediting and parent organization founded by Maria Montessori. In Houston, some 50 parents from affluent areas camped out in February for four nights on Dodson Elementary grounds in the inner city to register their children for the public school's 11-year-old Montessori program.

According to Dr. Osterkorn, the Montessori method is well suited to culturally diverse classrooms because it takes individual children where they are - not where society thinks they should be at a particular age. Nobody is higher or lower; nobody is better or worse. Each tackles his or her own task - an approach that minimizes tensions, Montessori advocates say.

A major concern in Montessori circles is that the name isn't copyrighted, and anyone - trained or untrained - can hang out a shingle. It's up to parents to investigate. Monthly costs for primary youngsters, full day, range from about $40 to more than $500, with city rates in the Northeast being highest and rural rates in the West the lowest.

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