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First Montessori school to open in Dickinson: Grasslands offers different style of education, at a cost

Press Photo by Nadya Faulx Mary Kopari, an educator at Grasslands Montessori Academy in Dickinson, builds a block tower with her sons, Holden, 3, left, and Conrad, 6, at an open house held Thursday.

An expansive cabin-style room is lined with shelves, some filled with neatly organized lengths of wood, another with carefully placed strings of beads. Classical music pipes in through the speakers, audible over the gentle whispers of children playing with blocks as they sit on yoga mats on the floor.

If it doesn’t seem like a traditional classroom, that’s because the soon-to-open Grasslands Montessori Academy is anything but traditional.

“Montessori is holistic education,” said Valerie Whitehead, education specialist at Grasslands, which begins classes Wednesday.

“We don’t just focus on academic,” she said, “but we focus on the physical, the emotional, the spiritual, the spirit of the child.”

A different method of teaching

Located in the old TaTu BBQ restaurant off the Interstate 94 Business Loop, the school will be the first in Dickinson to educate students using the 100-year-old method developed by Maria Montessori, an Italian educator who believed in teaching to each child’s unique potential.

The progressive, student-centric approach incorporates everything from algebra to art, language, music and dance, and allows kids to develop and learn at their own pace. It emphasizes independence, practical skills and hands-on learning.

“What’s really wonderful is that we don’t hold the child to their certain age level,” Whitehead said. “And it’s a very loving, nourishing way of educating that teaches huge passion and love for learning.”

A 30-plus year veteran educator, Whitehead and her now-husband Jeff founded and ran their own Montessori school for 25 years in the Salt Lake City region. They recently sold the school and relocated to Dickinson, where Whitehead’s daughter, Melissa Farnsworth, who had attended a Montessori school herself in preschool and kindergarten, has lived for three years.

Grasslands was a project born out of passion and necessity. Like many students who thrive in Montessori environments, Farnsworth’s middle son, Max, two, was born with Down syndrome. Mother and daughter began discussing bringing something to the area that could cater more to children’s needs.

“That’s a whole ‘nother part,” Farnsworth said. “Just making sure (Max’s) needs are taken care of.”

Whitehead said her previous school taught a range of children, some “normal,” and many with what she called “specialties.” The hope is that Grasslands will attract the same mix of students from across the spectrum of needs and abilities.

“Montessori is amazing in the fact that it follows the child, and what’s really wonderful is that we don’t hold the child to their certain age level,” she said. “So if they’re exceptional in math, we zoom in math. If they’re struggling in language, we do just to their level.”

Old concept gaining popularity

Montessori programs have been gaining popularity in bigger cities in the U.S.; around 4,500 schools operate across the country, and 20,000 worldwide, according to the North American Montessori Teachers’ Association. Grasslands will be one of just a handful of Montessori programs in North Dakota, most of them in Bismarck, Fargo and Grand Forks.

Despite having just two months to pull together a last-minute location and limited time to advertise, Farnsworth said she and the rest of the staff have already received an outpouring of interest in the school.

“There’s obviously a very big need for child care, for preschool, and for those sorts of options for children in the area due to the influx of people and changing dynamics of the city,” she said.

Many newcomers from out of state are already familiar with the program, she said, but plenty of others have never even heard of Montessori before.

“We’ve talked to people who have gone, ‘What exactly is this? What do you do?’” she said. “Obviously we’re happy to take both. We’re happy to explain what we do and how we do it, and we love to see the excitement.”

Corinna Diehl had only heard about Montessori as a high school student, but knew even when she was pregnant with her now-three-year-old daughter, Kennedy, that it was an experience she wanted for her children.

“I liked how they structured the education,” she said Thursday at an open house held at the school. “It’s a lot of self-learning, hands-on, not just sitting at a desk all day.”

Diehl said she contemplated moving to Bismarck in order to take advantage of Montessori programs there. Grasslands has found and filled a niche in the Dickinson community for parents looking for alternative education.

“It’s really nice to hear of it come up (in Dickinson),” she said.

The school’s 10-spot toddler program for children 18 months to three years old is full; its three-to-six-year-old program is about half full. Whitehead said she plans to expand classes up to third grade next year, and in the meantime will work on getting local educators certified in the Montessori method; she said she hopes to one day offer Montessori training herself.

Mary Kopari, one of three teachers on staff, said she didn’t even plan on working at Grasslands: she wanted to enroll her kids, and the school happened to be hiring.

“It’s always been a dream to work in a Montessori school,” she said.

Her six-year-old son Conrad was enrolled in a Montessori school when the family lived in New Orleans, and Kopari said she enjoyed how he developed there, gaining strong social skills and independence.

“If you don’t see for yourself how it works, you just don’t get it,” she said. “It’s more than just regular pre-school, A-B-C, 1-2-3, coloring. It provides more than coloring.”

But not without a price: a full day in the toddler program is $6,390 annually; extended care, with extra morning and evening hours, $7,020. The main classroom alone is filled with $30,000 worth of specialized Montessori materials, from books to tools.

Whitehead acknowledges the price tag, but said she believes the school’s unique method is worth the cost.

“Over 100 years ago Maria Montessori devised this concept in teaching,” she said, and now, “other education concepts are just barely grabbing onto it.”

Faulx is a reporter with The Dickinson Press. Contact her at 701-456-1207 or tweet her at NadyaFaulx.