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Brattleboro Montessori school blazing new path - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Brattleboro Montessori school blazing new path

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BRATTLEBORO, Vt. - The Hilltop Montessori School has 117 students -- from from pre-k to 8th grade.  There are 22 faculty and staff and an annual budget of around $1.7 million -- which primarily comes from tuition.  And Hilltop is making a name for itself as a national model.      

Just outside downtown Brattleboro, at the top of a sprawling hill, is a school appropriately named.  The Hilltop Montessori School may look similar to a traditional public school on the outside, but inside  a different kind of learning is taking place.  

"It's not like you are doing math now -- you can do it whenever you want," said fifth grader Mason Foard.

Freedom to manage your own time is just one of the principles instilled by Maria Montessori 100 years ago.  The Italian physician discovered that all throughout education, different interests hit different kids at different times.  So classes at this school are not grouped by a single age.  Instead, multi-year clusters -- 1st, 2nd, 3rd graders are in one classroom and 4th, 5th and 6th in another.  In some ways it's a return to the one room schoolhouse.   

Reporter Adam Sullivan: Do you like being with the older kids?

Talia Loevy-Reyes/4th grader:  Yeah... They help guide me through my work.

The idea is to let the kids play to each other's strengths.  Walk into a Montessori classroom and it may take you a minute to find the teacher.  That's because in this class everyone is a teacher at one point. "The older children are learning it that much better by teaching somebody else else and the younger children are really engaged because it is a cool 5-year-old that is giving them the lesson," said Head of School Tamara Mount.

There are several Montessori schools in our region -- in rural areas like Londonderry and Bethlehem and more populated cities like Montpelier and Keene.  Montessori schools are best  known for their pre-k and kindergarten programs -- early stages of development.  But Hilltop stands out for a different reason -- it's middle school.

On this day the classrooms are empty and the kitchen, where the kids have started several small businesses, is not being used. The 7th and 8th graders are taking part in a week-long field trip to Boston.  A blog documents their journey, which is focused on exploring different religions.
 
Teachers say this type of learning, that fully engages students in a subject, has helped keep the middle school's enrollment strong.  And the hands on approach has caught the attention of educators around the country who are looking to adopt similar programs, where learning often takes place outside of the classroom. "Both develop their independence but also develop their sense of community and their sense of responsibility for their whole community," Mount said.

And that mission starts with the very young.  Like a 6-year-old teaching a 3-year-olds how to make tea. Mixed-grade classrooms are seen in public education, but tracking the performance is also something this school does differently.  Grades -- no matter the age -- are not given out here. "Mistakes aren't bad, they are just opportunities to learn, and children get really focused on learning the information because they are interested in  it, not learning it because they need to get an 'A' on the test next week," Mount said.

"Very often a student will ask us, 'Dan I need help with this,'  and our first response is always -- as a Montessori teacher -- is, 'Well, have you asked another student yet?'" said Dan Filler, a teacher at the school.

For teachers like Filler, watching kids grow from 1st to 6th grade is a rewarding experience. "They can help themselves and they can help each other and our job is sometimes just to get out of the way," he said.

And getting out of the way often means letting students get right into their studies and becoming the leaders among their peers. "Usually I am the youngest in the house, so my brothers help me with all my work, so I like to actually have the chance to help other people -- and it felt really good," Loevy-Reyes said.

A good feeling in a unique settling that takes an alternative approach to learning.
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