I tossed many New Year’s post ideas around in my head. I could share my favorite moments from 2012, my list of goals for the New Year, a reflection on what I’ve learned – the options are many, but in the end, I decided that this would be the perfect time for me to chat you all up about my “Big Dream.”
I’m taking a week off from my regular Wednesday updates, by the way, so that I can start writing and scheduling them in advance, instead of rushing to upload the week’s photos and write about the latest every Tuesday night. I’m hoping to do more planning and scheduling for the site, and less on the fly blogging. We’ll see how it goes! I’ll be back with the regular link up next Wednesday.
Anyway, If you were with me way back in February when I was reading Amber Strocel’s Crafting My Life Playbook while realizing my long held dream of visiting Dr. Montessori’s first Casa dei Bambini, you may remember my mention of a big dream. It’s something I’ve been mulling over in my mind since it really made itself clear almost a year ago, but I haven’t shared it because I really felt I wanted to sit with it and clarify the steps to realizing it first. Then one day I woke up and, as with most good things in my life, found I had arrived a third or so of the way up the steps without even realizing I had gotten out of my chair.
If you know much about the work of Maria Montessori, you know that she did not start expensive private schools. The children with whom she worked were not wealthy or elite. Montessori believed that education, or rather the unhindered process of self-education in an appropriate environment, could completely change lives. My visit to that first Children’s House in San Lorenzo was such a magical experience for me, not because it was the birthplace of a brilliant method for education, but because it was the birthplace of a movement. It was a site where children who would otherwise have been left to fend for themselves, in unsuitable and unsafe conditions, were given a place to thrive1. They were treated with the dignity and respect due to every child.
Here we are in the present day, and Montessori’s philosophy and methods are alive and well. Montessori has nurtured such dynamic individuals as the cofounders of Google and the CEO of Amazon. Montessori works and yet, sadly, it is primarily only the elite who can benefit from it. Tuition for Montessori schools is more than most average families can comfortably afford – here in the Washington, DC area, it costs about $1,000 a month to send a single child. Some sacrifice to make it work, and others would like to, but find that even with sacrifices, it’s just not possible. There are those who are working to bring Montessori to the public sector, and theirs is a wonderful effort, to be sure. In my county, I’m thrilled that there are public Montessori programs. They offer a wonderful, tuition-free option for those who are lucky enough to be selected in the lottery, which they must remember to apply for during a specific window months in advance, but what about the rest?
As a child, when I had outgrown the phase where I went from wanting to be an actress to a fashion designer to a veterinarian in the span of a week, I began to dream of other things I wanted to be, and one dream played in my head over and over. I remember sitting in my room and making a drawing of a building, while thinking long and hard about what that building would be. It was a multi-level space, with families who needed a place to live making their homes upstairs, and a space downstairs where I would care for the children while their parents went to work or to classes. I had all of these grand plans for services that would be provided. As much as I daydreamed about this place, it didn’t have a name. It wasn’t a homeless shelter, and it wasn’t a school or a day care center. It faded out of my memory as life moved on, but a few years back, it appeared again and I realized what it was: it was essentially one of the tenement houses in Rome where Montessori established her first Children’s House. My original plan may be a bit of a logistical challenge, but as it happens, it’s very closely related to what I hope to do.
My big dream is to help make Montessori available children from all walks of life. In my career, I have had the pleasure of working with many a private school Montessori family, and I happen to know that most of them are caring and generous people. My thought is that if the tuition-based, private Montessori schools of the world will simply offer their families the option, a great many of them will gladly donate an additional $10, $20, or more on top of the amount they pay in tuition every month. Eventually, what I would like to do is create a non-profit organization that can take such donations and use them to fund Montessori programs that are available to all families, free of charge, or at an affordable cost based on a sliding scale. Whether I start these programs, or simply work to make the funding available so that others can is something I hadn’t worked out. Since my focus right now is on my own children, I hadn’t expected to take any real steps toward making this dream a reality for some time.
Meanwhile, I started looking for a Children’s House for Annabelle and realized we couldn’t afford any in the area, and that even if we did do some creative budgeting to make it work, we’d be looking at a minimum 30 minute commute each way. I put the idea of starting a program in our town out there, and got a huge response, so I decided to go for it. I wasn’t thinking about the big dream when I started this venture at all. I really just wanted a Montessori environment for my own child and was excited about the idea of contributing to our community in a way that made that possible. Not only did I want to keep it accessible to everyone, but I also wanted flexibility so that I could keep my focus on my family. That led me to the decision to volunteer my time for now and take a cooperative approach to building a local program, so that I would have plenty of other people to count on for help.
One of the parents who was interested in our little group has experience with starting non-profits, and she and I talked a bit about the grants that we could eventually apply for and the road to establishing a non-profit organization. It was her enthusiasm that made me realize that this little community program was a perfect first step on the path to making my big dream a reality. I have the support of a wonderful, core group of families that is supportive of my mission. With their help, I will easily be able to grow our little community group into a nonprofit preschool by around the time Elliot is three, and at that point we can begin to accept donations and expand our group to reach more families.
Perhaps others will be inspired to start similar programs, and I can eventually focus on the funding effort, or perhaps I’ll keep putting my energy into our local program and others who share the dream will dive in to fund more schools and reach more children. The way things develop will depend on the level of need and demand – more and more charter Montessori schools will translate to a need for fewer nonprofit programs, and how wide the reach of this dream can grow will depend on the availability of teachers, the willingness of others to participate, and much more. So we’ll see where the dream goes. All I know is that I plan to pour my energy into making high quality Montessori programs accessible to everyone. The only way to get there will be by following the greatest teachers out there: the children.
- If you’re unfamiliar with the history of the first Children’s Houses, you can read Dr. Montessori’s writing about how they came to be here: http://www.montessori-ami.org/montessori/mariala1942.htm ↩