Kristin Matchinsky’s classroom doesn’t have a smartboard, iPads or laptops, but that doesn’t mean her students aren’t learning. In fact, they are excelling — reading at higher grade levels and even learning multiplication.
The class of 13 kindergarteners and one first-grader at St. Wendelin School in Luxemburg is the first at the school to use the Montessori Method, a child-centered educational approach based on scientific observations of the children by a trained teacher. The school, one of only a handful in the diocese to use this unique method, hopes to expand the program, starting with students in preschool and second and third grades next year.
Due to declining enrollment, a committee was formed a couple of years ago to explore whether to close the school, which has 39 students this year.
“The parish is just so behind us 100 percent, where closing is not going to happen,” said Principal Lynn Rasmussen. “But then we needed to find something that would make us unique,” she said.
“How are we going to be a school that parents are going to want their children in that is going to truly give them a good education? Because that’s No. 1, it’s the kids. It’s all about the children,” she said.
The answer that ended up making the most sense was Montessori because it uses multi-age classrooms, which is how the school is currently set up, Rasmussen said.
Just as the school started to look for a Montessori-trained teacher, Matchinsky, who was teaching at a public Montessori school in Monticello, was looking for something new. “Part of me felt like I was being called back to a Christian environment,” she said. She reached out to Rasmussen when she heard the school was looking for someone to start the program at St. Wendelin.
“She’s remarkable,” Rasmussen said. “And she just fell into our lap. It’s like it was meant to be on both sides. She was ready to get out of the public sector and we were looking for the guidance in the Montessori Method.
Matchinsky became interested in Montessori while preparing for a lecture on alternative approaches to traditional education for an Introduction to Education class she was teaching at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University. She stumbled on the Montessori Method and thought it would be fun to take her students on a field trip to a Montessori school in St. Cloud. “I was learning along with them,” she said. “I fell in love with it. It just spoke to me.”
The students work on activities at their own pace and move on to the next level when Matchinsky sees that they have mastered the material.
“If they struggle with a lesson, they know that they will repeat it the next day,” she said. “Repetition is a really big deal in Montessori. It’s highly encouraged, not just to keep moving on, but that it’s OK to repeat something until you really have it.”
One of the foundations of the Montessori Method is working to increase the amount of time a student can focus and concentrate. “The quietness and the calmness of the environment are not just because we’re strict,” Matchinsky said. “We’re cultivating an atmosphere that is conducive to children being able to focus and concentrate.”
The families are seeing the progress of the class as well.
“I marvel at the students’ overall development in the Montessori program,” said Kathy Watrin, who volunteers once a week in the classroom and whose granddaughter Elizabeth is a kindergartener. “She has developed a love of learning and is excelling academically, which is important, but I believe her character development and learning about her faith is what delights me the most as a grandparent,” Watrin said.
“Each week, the students’ politeness, motivation in academics and their kindness and patience with me and with each other amazes me. They just seem to be blossoming as students who have a love for learning,” she said.