Three Education Alternatives
Bethany Children’s House, Homestead and Homeschooled
Text & Photgraphs | Marcia Nehemiah
Children come in different shapes and sizes. Some are round, some square, and a few are pentagons. For a lot of children, school can be a constant struggle to fit in to narrowly defined learning styles. While public schools strive to address the needs of all their students, some parents want a different environment for their children.
Bethany Children’s House
Bethany’s Children House (BCH), a non-profit Montessori preschool located just outside Honesdale, PA, is celebrating its 30th year of implementing the educational ideas of Dr. Maria Montessori (1870-1952). While it is difficult to sum up her contribution to children’s education, her impact cannot be underestimated. She said: “Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment.” She also said “that education is not something which the teacher does, but it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being.”
As children exercise their freedom within established order, they develop a sense of accomplishment and confidence. Their experience tells them that they can trust themselves and solve problems independently.
Bethany Children’s House provides carefully designed hands-on activities that allow children opportunities for discovery. Each child develops at his or her own rate, and various learning styles are respected.
In the Preprimary class, three children sit in child-sized rocking chairs and a bright blue couch exploring books and sharing their discoveries. Another girl sits at the art table, coloring a picture of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Under the picture is an incomplete sentence: “She is dreaming of …”. In the blank space, the girl prints the words, “the stars.” Two boys unroll a mat and work with dice they have chosen from the shelf where all the math activities are located. A boy and girl unroll a mat and begin playing with blocks.
When Miss Katie (Katie Brosky, certified Montessori teacher and directress of BCH) sounds three chimes, the children excitedly find their spots for Circle Time. Miss Katie and the children exchange “good mornings” in English, French, German, Chinese, Spanish, Greek, Italian and Indian. Miss Katie tells the children that the letter of the day is Z and asks them questions to help them understand the concept of “zero.”
Every Montessori classroom is divided into eight areas: Language and Reading, Science and Nature, Geography and World Cultures, Math, Music, Art, Sensorial and Practical Life, each of which contains materials designed to stimulate interest in the child and to facilitate learning.
The role of the teacher in the Montessori classroom is to direct and guide. Although Miss Katie and Miss Bronwyn are not the center of the classroom, they are constantly observing the children and encouraging them. Their careful preparation is evident. All activities are created so that the children can develop order, concentration and coordination, and become independent thinkers who are actively engaged in the learning process.
The same goals guide the Toddler class. As teacher Miss Lynn reads tells a story using pictures in the book “Berenstain Bears Go to the Doctor,” aide Miss Diane quietly helps children focus their attention.
Miss Katie tells me: “We get feedback from the Kindergarten teachers in the public schools that our kids are farther ahead in math and reading skills as well as organization.”
Enrollment for theschool year at BCH continues until classes are full, on a first-come, first served basis. Interested parents should call the school (570/253-6359) to set up an observation time. Visit bethanychildrenshouse.org.
The Homestead School
At the private Montessori-based Homestead School, set on 85 acres in Glen Spey, NY, the world is the classroom. Children hike nature trails, plant gardens, tend goats, sheep and chickens, work in wood shop and perform original plays in the outdoor theater. The indoor classrooms look out on the mountains, woods and open space that surround the school.
Directors Peter Comstock and wife Marsha opened the school in 1978 with 12 preschool students. It gradually grew to include kindergarten and first grade. When son Jack and daughter-in-law Nisha joined the staff in 2001, “they put their creative imprint on the school” said Peter, encouraging its expansion by one grade a year.
The school now has three levels — preschool through kindergarten, first through third grade and fourth through sixth grade. “Quite a lot of planning goes into our curriculum. We are trying to integrate the subjects,” said Jack. For example, during the unit on Greek civilization in the upper elementary grades, the study of Archimedes incorporated physics. Children learned about his inventions by making levers and pulleys.
Art classes incorporate art history as well as the skills of making art, and one classroom is devoted solely to fiber arts. Students shear sheep who live at the school, spin wool and dye yarn. They learn to knit. This year, they are weaving masks and belts, knitting a baby blanket as a group project, and sewing stuffed animals.
Students have examined issues in the world beyond Glen Spey. Their study of mountaintop removal resulted in a trip to West Virginia. They have raised money to preserve rainforest acreage in Latin America. Most recently, they have studied the issue of gas drilling. These investigations require their use of reading, writing, math, problem solving, public speaking, history and science.
Children from the Homestead School enter public school in seventh grade, well prepared and capable of adapting to the different learning environment. Nisha said that most Homestead grads take honors classes, and excel academically and socially.
Contact 845/856-6359 or homesteadschool.com.
Eduardo Antonetti, a public school educator and administrator, and his wife Lenore Rogan are strong supporters of public education. But when it came to their children, they had reservations.
“We began to feel that school might not be the best match for our kids,” said Rogan. “We worried whether their intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm for learning were being nurtured in an environment that often emphasized conformity over individuality.” They wondered if the kids “were being sufficiently challenged.”
So when Gian, 10, and Pancho, 8, asked for home schooling, “We decided to leap into it, and it felt very much like I imagine skydiving might feel — simultaneously liberating, exhilarating and terrifying,” said Rogan. They embarked on a home-schooling program in September 2009. Samantha, 3, is now in the class.
The National Household Education Surveys Program indicates that in 2007, over 1.5 million children in the U.S. were home schooled. Parents choose to home school their children for a variety of reasons including dissatisfaction with academic instruction in public schools, concern over negative peer pressure and the public school environment, a desire for more flexibility and religious considerations.
Rogan does the hands-on teaching, since Eduardo works long hours. He is a resource for her, answering her questions and giving advice. “I am grateful to have a partner who knows as much as he does, but in the end, it really comes down to the kids and me.”
Each state mandates that home schoolers follow a core curriculum very much like the ones in public schools. In Pennsylvania, where the Antonetti children live, professional educators evaluate each child’s educational progress. Students must take standardized tests and present a portfolio of work. A certified teacher or school psychologist provides an annual written evaluation for each student. According to The Washington Post, “All surveys of home-schooled students so far indicate that they have higher achievement rates on average than regular students.”
Rogan acknowledges that there are challenges to home schooling. “Finding time to research and experiment with resources that will work for your family while making sure there is food in the fridge, everyone has clean clothes, you have time to develop friendships and to be a mom as well as a teacher can be overwhelming. I am not working outside the home right now, but I did last year; working adds a whole extra layer of complexity to the balancing act.” She said that “keeping a hearty sense of humor help a lot, too.”
She has found the experience to be a positive one. “I can say confidently that we have grown closer, that we know each other better and respect each other more than we did before. I have no idea what the future holds, but I know that we will meet it strengthened by the mutual respect that only looking long and hard can provide. I feel good about that.”