Serving the UMN community since 1900

The Minnesota Daily

Serving the UMN community since 1900

The Minnesota Daily

Serving the UMN community since 1900

The Minnesota Daily

Over 25 years in Dinkytown: Miniapple Montessori connects University, preschool life

Hiring students and teaching professors’ children while neighboring Greek life organizations, Miniapple Montessori has found its home in the middle of a busy college town.
Image by Shalom Berhane
Miniapple International Montessori in Dinkytown on Feb. 8, 2024.

Home to many University of Minnesota students, the quiet, residential streets of Dinkytown just past the busy commercial district consist of student homes, apartments and Greek life houses. Nestled among these extensions of University life sits another, smaller education institution: the Minneapolis branch of Miniapple International Montessori Schools.

Established in 1990 inside the nearby St. Lawrence Catholic Church and Newman Center, the Miniapple Montessori preschool soon outgrew its original location. The school’s founders, Udi Perera and her husband Mithula, relocated the school to a former fraternity house, buying the property from the University in 1996 and making it the school’s permanent home in 1999. 

Since thorough renovations, Miniapple Montessori has been a mainstay in the Dinkytown community. From Dinkytown, Miniapple soon expanded to two more Twin Cities locations in Oakdale and Roseville. Today, Miniapple educates students ages six weeks to six years old. 

Perera, who spent her career as a Montessori teacher and later a school administrator, said she built the school in Dinkytown because of her personal connection to the area. 

“Dinkytown is very special to me because that’s where I worked and I lived,” Perera said. “My husband managed an apartment building for many years until we bought a house eventually, and another house. My kids are grown up now and my grandkids went through Montessori too. It’s a great way of giving back to the community.”

The Montessori teaching method Miniapple follows focuses on the individual learning needs and interests of a child, according to Miniapple Montessori’s website, emphasizing “creativity, independence and critical thinking.”

Miniapple Minneapolis Director and parent Kaylee Burns said the school creates a classroom environment that provides the foundation for a child to learn prosperously.

“[The classroom] is called a children’s house for a reason. They create a home environment where they’re comfortable,” Burns said. “Once they hit the, ‘I feel safe, I’m fed, I’m taken care of,’ then they can actually learn and be more willing to learn, and that’s honestly the coolest thing about it.”

Perera said she is proud of the way Miniapple and the Montessori education style has cyclically served the University community. 

“We have a lot of professors’ children, students’ children, people who have come to our school and now they have their own kids and they bring them,” Perera said. “Generations of children coming and we continue to provide that.” 

Miniapple Montessori not only involves the University community through its students and parents but also through its teachers, according to Perera. The school provides employment and volunteer opportunities to University students seeking practical classroom experience.

Paige Frigaard, the lead guide for Miniapple’s transition classroom for toddlers to preschool students, started as a teaching assistant or “float” at Miniapple while still a student at the University. After she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education Foundations, Perera offered Frigaard the opportunity to lead her own classroom.

Frigaard said working at Miniapple while she was still in school helped her determine the future of her education career.

“I went to Montessori school as a preschool student and I hadn’t really had any connection to it since I had left,” Frigaard said. “When I came back to work here I found kind of a new love for it and discovered that this is something that I might want to do instead of going into public school.”

Sarena Phonngavong began working as a “float” at Miniapple in the fall of 2020. With a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University, Phonngavong said while she is not interested in being a teacher, working with children in an educational environment taught her unique lessons about technology and its impact.

“I could see how children act when they have a screen in front of them and how they act in a school setting, and then be like, ‘Okay, well, as much as I love to develop things and create different programs, I know that there is a strict line that you shouldn’t cross,’” Phonngavong said. 

Phonngavong added that her time at Miniapple has also helped shape her career goals.

“At first when I chose software engineering, I was like, ‘Big tech, blah, blah, blah, make a lot of money,’” Phonngavong said. “Now, I’m so open to doing startups or doing something where tech and education can intertwine.”

Originally from Sri Lanka herself, Perera said Miniapple prioritizes teaching students respect and global awareness. Bearing resemblance to the University’s structure, Miniapple welcomes students, parents and teachers from around the world. 

“We have people from all over the world at our school, teachers and students, and that’s what the University is too,” Perera said. “We are all equal and we are teaching the children to be respectful of that as well.” 

Frigaard said that with several international students in her class whose parents are University professors, the diversity helps introduce students to different cultures and better understand their classmates.

“It’s cool for kids to get exposure to people from different countries [and] people that speak different languages,” Frigaard said. “We like to teach the children about all the different holidays that are around because a lot of our families in the classes celebrate them, so their families can come and share about their traditions.” 

In addition to being engaged in global education, Miniapple students are surrounded by the culture of a Big Ten college town, with fraternity and sorority houses as neighbors. Burns said she was initially concerned about the clash of dynamics but has since been relieved of worry.

“My first question was, ‘Do we have a lot of issues during homecoming week and things like that?’ and [Perera] was like ‘No, not at all,’” Burns said. “I think that’s really special because we have no issues during the day, there’s no interruption.”

Phonngavong said she has noticed Miniapple’s University student neighbors’ consideration for the school’s environment and its students.

“I’ve seen lots of changes of the frats noticing that the kids are outside and they change the music,” Phonngavong said. “They stop playing [beer] pong and throw a football around, which is really sweet to see.” 

Frigaard said being located in a college town offers a special opportunity for students to connect with an unfamiliar world beyond Miniapple’s walls.

“When we go on walks, there’s always like a million things to look at and see and I think kids appreciate that,” Frigaard said. “They get to kind of interact with people that they wouldn’t have seen and learn how to interact with others.”

A steady dynamic that has withstood the test of time, Perera said the connection between the University and Miniapple has remained successful because, while different, both institutions share a common goal.

“The end result should be helping the community, helping people who want to go into early childhood education and children matter because they are the future,” Perera said. “When you work together, we are trying to achieve that common goal, providing the best education possible.”

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  • Lynn Assimacopoulos
    Feb 12, 2024 at 11:01 am

    Hearing about this is wonderful. Both my husband, who trained as a Surgeon at the U of MN…and myself who graduated as an RN from the U of MN School of Nursing…..enrolled all of our three sons in Montessori Schools. First in St. Louis Park and later when we moved to Omaha, Nebraska they continued there. Each one spent 3 pre-school years in Montessori before starting first grade in public schools. This was one of the best things we could do for our young boys and it was well worth every minute they spent learning in Montessori.