FAIRFIELD — The oldest Montessori school in the state turns 40 years old this week, and in that time the school has grown noticeably amid an expanding range of childhood education options. To mark those four decades of a child-driven approach to early childhood education, school organizers are planning to celebrate their past and present with a look to the future.

The Kennebec Montessori School occupies a five-classroom building on 38 Sheridan Drive in the Fairfield Business Park with students ranging in age from 3 to 12. Head of School Rebecca Green said 102 students are enrolled at the school, though that number is expected to rise to about 120 as the school continues to grow. The school is planning to expand this summer and expects to open a new building addition to accommodate older students by this coming winter.

Over the past 10 years, Green said, enrollment was typically around 90 students; but when the school opened a new classroom last year, enrollment rose. “We had a tremendous response to enrollment this year,” she said.

Situated on 14 acres off of Interstate 95, the private school is a nonprofit organization that is tuition-based and employs about 15 people. It has five classrooms. Classes of about 20 students, generally in a mixed age group, are taught by a head teacher with an assistant teacher. Instruction is guided by students who choose the activity or approach they are interested in.

On Saturday, the school will mark 40 years with music, a petting zoo, face painting, henna art, a bounce house, food and craft vendors, artisan demonstrations and a cake-cutting. Green said the event, which runs from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., will be a “celebration for the whole community.” In addition to the families of students currently enrolled, school officials hope the wider community will join them in celebrating how far they have come.

“We’re hoping to celebrate the last 40 years,” she said. “We’re hoping alumni will come, hear plans for the future and reconnect with friends.”

And during that celebration, they plan to show off what the future has in store.

EXPANDING EFFORTS

The school recently was awarded a community facilities direct loan of $700,000 as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development fund program. They will use the loan to build a 2,400-square-foot addition to the school, which Green said will be used to house the upper elementary students. The loan will be paid back at low interest, around 2.3 percent annually, over 40 years.

Green said the upper elementary-level students now are housed in the main building, so it’s been crowded at times. She said she hopes renderings of the new building are delivered by Friday to have on hand for the celebration Saturday.

School officials expect the project to go out to bid in June and to break ground in July. Green said they hope to be able to move into the building in December.

The Montessori school building, designed by architect Paul Augusten, was built in 1995. The school was once located in the Lutheran Church on Cool Street in Waterville, later moved to the Pleasant Street Methodist Church in Waterville and then to the St. John school in Winslow.

The architects of the new addition are Phi Architects in Rockport, Green said.

The addition isn’t the only new part of the campus. To complement the use of the school’s 14 acres for exploration of nature and wildlife, the school has secured a grant from the Oak Grove School Foundation in Vassalboro to build a hoop house to expand its gardening program. A hoop house is a kit greenhouse made up of piping and a layer of heavy greenhouse plastic allowing for extended periods of gardening.

Given the number of students the school has now and the limited space in which they work, even with a combined grade level classroom added last year, Green said, “we have to be creative with scheduling right now.”

In addition to the regular school year offering, Green said, the school offers before- and after-school care for students. There is also a summer day care program for students ages 3 to 8.

Green said while enrollment will be 120 students next year, she expects the following year to settle at around 130 students.

“I think people are recognizing how important early childhood education is,” she said. “It’s becoming part of the mainstream conversation of education.”

MONTESSORI EDUCATION

Montessori schools, named after Maria Montessori, focus on nurturing curiosity and a sense of community in their students. Green said there are no fixed desks in the building, and with child-sized furniture and fixtures, the students are given jobs to do throughout the day.

Montessori, who died in 1952, was the first female physician in Italy. She opened the first “Children’s House,” called Casa dei Bambini, in 1907 in a tenement building in Rome. She was a three-time Noble Peace Prize nominee who encouraged teachers to cultivate peace and courtesy in their classrooms in addition to the idea that children learn best from their environment.

According to the American Montessori Society, an advocate of Montessori education, necessary components for a program to be considered authentically Montessori include “multi-age groupings that foster peer learning, uninterrupted blocks of work time, and guided choice of work activity. In addition, a full complement of specially designed Montessori learning materials are meticulously arranged and available for use in an aesthetically pleasing environment.”

While that idea might lead some to think there is no structure in Montessori schools, Green said the lessons are structured to encourage curiosity and to follow that curiosity. Teachers use a curriculum to guide students there, so that by the end of their time at the school, they have all the basics they need.

“People often think Montessori schools are unstructured and free or very strict,” Green said. “It’s somewhere in the middle.”

Green said the curriculum is built around practical life skills as well as basic concepts such as language and mathematics. The school is accessible, conforming with the rules of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Green said they have served children with physical disabilities. The classroom set-up creates a “classroom community.” It’s a house set up for the children to learn valuable skills interacting and forming relationships with others and more basic skills such as cooking and cleaning.

“They become a little family,” she said as a class prepared for an upcoming Mothers’ Day event.

Patti Bailie, an assistant professor of early childhood education at the University of Maine Farmington, said what sets Montessori schools apart from more traditional classroom environments is the approach set in place by Maria Montessori. Bailie said Montessori focused on children in inner cities who led unstructured lives and so developed materials and ways of helping students become their own teachers and create their own structures.

Bailie said Montessori schools follow a “constructivist model” of education, in which students construct their own knowledge as opposed to being told it. Montessori schools, especially the mixed-age classrooms, allow students to develop at their own rate and not to be pushed when they’re not ready to be pushed. She said that in Montessori schools, teachers aren’t teaching in the traditional sense, but are instructing students on how to use materials, and then students have the opportunity to work individually on specific things.

“Give them what they need and they will construct their own knowledge,” Bailie said.

Unlike more traditional schools, Bailie said, what sets Montessori schools apart is the use of unstructured time, when students are allowed to learn at the pace that is best for them. She said a mixed-age grouping allows children to “be wherever they need to be” in terms of learning.

She said the hands-on learning approach and use of authentically constructed materials as learning devices also set the schools apart.

PARENT PARTICIPATION KEY

The school encourages parent participation in the child’s learning, Green said. Every family is asked to volunteer 20 hours of their time as part of the enrollment commitment, ranging from listening to students read aloud to helping out on field trips. Parent involvement makes a big difference, she said, as it provides “models for engagement” for students to follow.

“Parents are a big part of our school,” she said.

Dan Eccher, an Oakland resident, and his wife send their daughter to Kennebec Montessori School. He said he and his wife value the child-centered approach a Montessori school provides.

“The materials are self-guiding and self-corrective,” Eccher said, noting that the mathematics curriculum teaches the decimal system using bead chains and reading materials get progressively more difficult.

He praised the school’s faculty members, saying they are all “very well trained and experienced and committed to Montessori principles.”

Eccher said that unlike private parochial schools, Kennebec Montessori School is not religiously affiliated. He said public schools tend to employ a more “top down, teacher teaching” approach, and the “philosophy of encouraging intrinsic motivation in children” is more effective and aligns more with his and his wife’s philosophy of parenting.

“At Kennebec Montessori School, there’s a certain feel to the place that’s very nurturing, and (it’s) a really high-quality education,” he said.

Sharon Conover, of Oakland, who is on the school’s board of directors and sent both her children to the school, said when she and her spouse were looking for a preschool for their daughter, people they knew recommended they look at Kennebec Montessori School. After they went to see it, she said, there wasn’t a lengthy investigation into finding a school.

“We were happy through the years,” she said, adding that when her children eventually transitioned into public schools, they seemed to have a good grounding and a love of education.

One of the things Conover said she liked about the Montessori education was its hands-on style of learning and not just the relation of abstract ideas. She also valued how children can progress at their own rates in the classroom. She said a child who wants to go ahead in a subject such as reading is encouraged to do so. The child is not told to wait until the rest of the group is caught up in a unit.

“It was a freedom within a structure,” she said.

ADMISSION AND COSTS

Since most students begin at the school when they are age 3, for primary care, Green said admission isn’t a hugely competitive process. The school generally accepts students on a first-come, first-served basis and serves students from 10 area districts.

Tuition depends on the age of the student and how often he or she attends classes. For children ages 3 to 4 who attend three days a week in the mornings, tuition is about $3,700 a year. For that same age group, mornings for the full week costs about $5,200; and for the full academic day all week, a little over $6,500. For 5-year-olds to attend for the full day for a full week, the cost is also about $6,500. For students ages 6 to 12 to attend for the full day each week, tuition is just over $6,900.

Green said the school does offer scholarships for students, which are need-based and have ranged recently from $500 to $1,000.

One of only four in Maine that are accredited by the American Montessori Society, Kennebec Montessori also is accredited through the Maine Montessori Association. There are other Montessori schools around the state accredited through the Maine Montessori Association, including the Skowhegan Montessori School, the Stepping Stones Montessori School and Cushnoc Academy at Stepping Stones in Chelsea. A number of schools operate in southern Maine, including the ChildLight Montessori School in Portland, the Freeport Montessori School and the Pine Grove School in Falmouth.

Today there are more than 20,000 Montessori schools worldwide, including 4,500 in the United States and over 30 in Maine, a mix of public and private.

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

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Twitter: @colinoellis