“There is in the soul of a child an impenetrable secret that is gradually revealed as it develops …. With a spirit of sacrifice and enthusiasm we must go in search, like those who travel to foreign lands and tear up mountains in their search for hidden gold.”
— Dr. Maria Montessori
It was an overcast and misty winter day, but I immediately noticed the fence with pickets painted like oversized colored pencils. It was thoughtful and impactful. I was greeted by the owners, Anna Dulcich and Oxana Raimondo. I braced myself for a multicolored, messy classroom full of plastic toys and busy, chatty preschoolers running from corner to corner.
Once in the room, I saw children gathering in a circle for what they call “mindfulness morning.” Peaceful music was playing low in the background; the educator greeted each child with a polite “good morning” then read a book about handling big feelings like anger and worry. The group did breathing and arm exercises together, and the activity ended with a spritz of essential oils on each set of tiny outstretched hands.
I was visiting a new preschool, Valley Montessori Academy, or VMA, in Bakersfield. It opened in August 2017 and hasn’t yet completed its first full year. It adheres to the education method started by Dr. Maria Montessori, an Italian physician acclaimed for her approach that builds on the way children naturally learn. She opened the first Montessori school 110 years ago — Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s House — in Rome on Jan. 6, 1907.
Montessori teachers see their primary role as creating rich environments where children teach themselves by manipulating specially designed materials and interacting in mixed age groups. VMA educators are Montessori-trained and receive more schooling and oversight than the typical preschool teacher.
The classroom was serene and bright with light wood floors and large windows, not at all the messy chaos I had anticipated. Children’s art hung on the clean white walls and depicted people of different nationalities standing atop a circular earth; a world map identifying continents was on the opposite wall. A self-serve drink and snack station sat in the corner with a chalkboard listing the number of each item (pretzels, carrots, cheese and crackers) that children should take. After eating, children were encouraged to clean their own plate at the child-height sink. These are things one does not typically see in a classroom designed for 2.5- to 6-year-olds. As I looked around the room, everything felt intentionally in its place — from wooden produce in a box on a shelf to a miniature clothes line with play attire set up to teach practical skills like healthy eating and laundry.
Montessori schools are unique because of the multi-age groupings that foster peer learning, uninterrupted blocks of work time and guided choices for work activity. Children are given much more responsibility and freedom at a young age.
When I sat down to hear their story, it was immediately clear that owners Anna and Oxana are passionate about the Montessori principles. The school grew out of their desire to provide a Montessori-based education for their own children. For a few years, they had a Montessori-trained teacher run a school for their own kids in Anna’s home.
Originally from far-away Russia — Anna from Moscow, Oxana from Siberia — the pair are proud to live and work in Bakersfield. It took Anna a bit longer to develop a love for this place, but they speak openly and easily about the many reasons they’re proud to call Bakersfield home — a great place to raise a family, an emerging downtown and a welcoming climate for new businesses.
They listened to other parents who also wanted a Montessori experience for their children like those in metropolitan places they’d lived or visited (Moscow, London, New York, Los Angeles and the Bay Area). VMA is just a preschool for now, but Anna and Oxana already have plans to expand through elementary grades. This depends on their ability to attract and retain highly skilled workers, a hurdle many new businesses confront here.
The student body at VMA is diverse — they come from Turkey, Italy, South Africa, Korea, the UK and other countries. And one key thing I noticed: The children are engaged and well-behaved. Children of different ages, skill levels and backgrounds share and work cooperatively. I watched young children come to their classmates’ aid at various stations. Children, by the very nature of the environment, learn to respect one another and build a sense of community. This is an important lesson in today’s increasingly divided world.
For much of the day, children are allowed to choose their activities and work at them on their own terms, so creativity in the classroom is encouraged. Children work at tasks for the joy of it, rather than the end result, which allows them to focus more on process – a natural path to creativity.
Studies show that Montessori-trained students have better social skills, are more adept at recognizing and harnessing feelings, are more creative problem-solvers and possess a better understanding of social justice and fairness. Montessori students learn to think critically, work collaboratively, and act boldly — important skills for the 21st century.
“Education starts with preschool,” explains Anna. These are formative years. The Montessori Method focuses on fostering a hands-on, self-paced, collaborative and fun learning experience, starting young. It teaches students to start small with their ideas, to build them through experimentation and to solve the problems that come up along the way with a sense of curiosity.
The method is focused on original thought and reason. It’s no surprise to me that a lot of Silicon Valley’s brightest minds and most successful innovators have attended Montessori schools. The founders of Amazon, Google and Wikipedia all went through an early Montessori education.
VMA students appeared more creative, adaptable and self-motivated than most preschoolers. I am inspired to see a local school and local parents stake their future on the Montessori way and help shape tiny pioneers. The world could use a few more thoughtful and passionate advocates.
Perhaps the next big innovator of our century is already here in Bakersfield, being nurtured in the rich environment at VMA. I wouldn’t be at all surprised.
Follow VMA on Facebook as they complete the school’s first year or find more information at valleyma.com.
Anna Smith writes a weekly column about Bakersfield. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed are her own.