Education starts young near campus

Montessori schools focus on letting children make choices.

Kevin McCahill

It isn’t the most common scene appearing right next to a student neighborhood like Dinkytown.

There are jungle gyms and monkey bars and the constant shriek of preschoolers ring loudly throughout the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood on a daily basis.

The sounds are coming from the Miniapple International Montessori School on Fifth Street Southeast and 12th Avenue Southeast.

Along with the University Child Care Center in Southeast Como and the Laboratory School, which is part of the Institute of Child Development, Miniapple is one of the few preschools and only Montessori school near campus.

Miniapple has been at its location for five years, taking the place of a fraternity house, assistant director Jessica Altobell said.

The school has been in the area for 15 years, she said, as it formerly was in St. Lawrence Church across the street.

Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association executive director Melissa Bean said the school has been a fixture in the neighborhood.

“I think it’s nice,” she said. “They have a pretty good reputation.”

The school has about 100 students, many of them children of University employees, Altobell said. There are toddler and preschool classes taught with a Montessori philosophy.

That style, Altobell said, gives students the opportunity to make decisions.

“The kids teach themselves and learn from each other,” she said. “We are sort of structured, but during work time they choose what kind of work they want to do.”

Students study a variety of subjects, including math, geography and language, Altobell said.

The Montessori philosophy began in Italy and has spread worldwide.

“Learning from each other is a big part of it,” Altobell said.

Nursing school professor Romana Urueta has spent years working with children and said Montessori schools provide more avenues for students to take in information.

“It appeals to children because children need to touch the things (instructors) are telling them (about),” she said. “Montessori has a lot of tools for the children (that help) explain the nature of whatever they are doing.”

She said the Montessori style isn’t better or worse than a traditional preschool system, though she said the program won’t be as successful if the teacher isn’t willing to connect with students.

“It’s a way to teach without just talking to them and writing on the blackboard,” she said. “If the child is small, you have to work with them.”

Bean said there are many children in the neighborhood, and the number of University employees with children makes the school successful.

“When people are looking for child care, sometimes they look near home,?and sometimes they look near work,” she said.

But Bean said there aren’t many day care options around the University.

One of the few is the University Child Care Center in Southeast Como.

Administrator Mary Berg said the center employs between 70 and 80 students each year. Most are child development or elementary education majors, she said.

The center has 140 children, and at least one of each child’s parents needs to be affiliated with the University.

“It’s a high-quality child care option,” she said.

Besides Miniapple, one of the only other nearby preschools is the Laboratory School on campus.

That program brings in students from the community for teacher training and research, said Peggy Beck, Institute of Child Development administrative associate.

Students in the program, which meets for half days, teach basic skills to 102 children from ages 2 to 5.

Early childhood special education graduate student Rebecca Hayne is one of the 14 student-teachers working at the Laboratory School. She teaches 18 children in one of five half-day classes the school offers.

She said the preschool program is an important stepping stone for children.

“If they enter kindergarten without preschool, they are missing opportunities to work with other kids,” she said.

Traditional preschool programs work well because they are taught in an environment familiar to students, Urueta said. It is in a more formal classroom style that children will be more familiar with throughout the course of their education, she said.

Hayne said preschool programs teach basic social, emotional and thinking skills.

The programs also teach basic language skills, which have shown to help students when they enter kindergarten, Hayne said.