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Saanich academy introduces first Montessori grads

They’ve been called “guinea pigs” because so much of their school work has never been tried before.
Grade 12 students Sarah Doucette, left, Erica Somer, Adam Caflisch, Devon Brynell and Jasmine Oh are in the first graduating class for Maria Montessori Academy. Missing from the photo is Teagan Feil.

They’ve been called “guinea pigs” because so much of their school work has never been tried before.

The six teens graduating from Grade 12 on June 19 at Maria Montessori Academy in Saanich are the only class in Canada to graduate with a secondary-school diploma in the Montessori system. Only one other school, in Ottawa, is embarking on Montessori high school classes (up to Grade 9), beginning in September

Despite the Saanich high school’s newness — even the kids refer to themselves as “guinea pigs” — they are confident in their ability to take the next step into post-secondary education.

“I think the best thing I learned here was time-management, learning how to pace myself to get all my work done — that and self confidence,” said Erica Somer, 17, who plans to take psychology at the University of Victoria.

“[The school] taught me a lot about myself and about taking different paths, so now I am confident in taking a different path.

“It’s my own personal choice, rather than what I think other people think I should do.”

Montessori education is named after its pioneering originator, Dr. Maria Montessori, who was born in 1870.

Italy’s first woman to become a physician, Montessori began her work in education with disadvantaged children in Rome in the early 20th century.

Katherine Poyntz, executive director of the Canadian Council of Montessori Administrators in Toronto, said Montessori schools strive to respect a child’s whole development: psychological, physical, social and educational.

Classes typically contain mixed-age groups, for example, with ages three to six always the first cohort. Students usually operate in open-concept settings. They also work with relatively large blocks of learning time — three hours is considered optimum.

Students are given some freedom to choose what they want to work on. But they are also required to complete a prescribed curriculum and operate under the guidance of a specialized teacher.

“It’s freedom, but it comes with responsibility,” said Poyntz.

Montessori instruction is usually limited to primary grades, although the last few decades have seen its expansion into middle-school years, and interest in Montessori high schools is growing in the U.S.

For Maria Montessori Academy in Saanich, carrying a class all the way through to high school graduation was a leap of faith for teachers, parents and students.

Principal Brenda McDermitt said years ago, when it was first announced the school would be carrying on through Grade 12, she had verbal commitments from 16 families to enrol their children.

But come that first September, only six kids showed up.

“The toughest part was getting people to see our vision and believe in it,” said McDermitt. “It’s one thing to have a vision, but when it’s your own child signing up to be a guinea pig, it can be hard.”

Maria Montessori Academy first opened in its own premises on Wilkinson Road in 1991, although it existed prior to that in leased quarters starting in about 1980. It moved into its Fairburn Drive location in 2007, taking over what was once Fairburn Elementary School, which had been sold as surplus by the Saanich School District.

Even that move was a leap of faith driven by the dream of offering Montessori instruction all the way to Grade 12. Without the need for extra space, the school would not have moved.

McDermitt concedes there was trial and error with the graduating class.

The learning environment and teaching methods were tweaked as the class worked its way through Grades 9 to 12. High school math classes, for example, demanded a step-by-step instructional structure somewhat unfamiliar to Montessori.

Nevertheless, each member of the class has always met test-score milestones mandated by the B.C. Ministry of Education. Scores have been as good, or better than provincial averages.

McDermitt said school confidence is now at a high point.

Graduates, remaining students, teachers administrators and parents are all satisfied with the school’s approach, so much so that next year’s graduating class is expected to number 16.

The school is steadily growing, from 145 when the new buildings opened to students from kindergarten to Grade 8. Now, the school has expanded to 280 students and plans to cap out at 310.

This year’s six graduates, Somer, Adam Caflisch, 17, Sarah Doucette, 18, Devon Byrnell, 17, Teagan Feil, 18, and Jasmine Oh, 18, all have plans to attend post-secondary schools.

Somer and Doucette are both headed for Bachelor of Arts programs at the University of Victoria. Caflisch plans on pre-medical studies beginning at Camosun College. Feil, already active with the Victoria Flying Club, plans on getting pilot’s wings. Oh is aiming for college at Sprott Shaw.

Three of them have done their entire education in the Montessori method.

The others transferred in later, but wished they had been given the chance to do all their education in a Montessori environment.

Caflisch, for example, completed the first few years in Montessori, but then went on to Victoria public schools, where he says he was “pretty well picked on the whole time.”

When he arrived in Grade 10 at Maria Montessori Academy, his teacher found him a scholarship to a film school, where he completed a documentary on anti-bullying. After that, he never looked back.

“I really do feel like I’m ready to move on [to post secondary],” said Caflisch. “But I really wished I could have showed up here a little bit earlier.

“If I could have had a little more time here I would have taken it.”