In the early 1970s, Montessori education was largely unheard of in Montana and completely nonexistent in institutional form. But a group of parents in the Flathead Valley had come across the educational method elsewhere and wondered whether they could bring it to Northwest Montana.
Not much pointed to Kalispell as an obvious launching point for this pedagogical movement, but the parents banded together and worked with community leaders to launch the Flathead Montessori Society in 1972, long believed to be Montana’s first Montessori school, although an educator in Billings has said she started a program the same year.
In any case, it was an unexpected emergence in a conservative corner of the state where private schools had been and still are to a great extent supported by churches. This grassroots enterprise had no such church backing, but the parents’ enthusiasm and community’s support built a sturdy enough foundation that, by 1976, it became clear the school had outgrown its Four Mile Drive location.
Society members asked Sally Welder, one of the school’s original teachers, and her husband, Terry Welder, to take on the construction and administration of an expanded school, and a year later, in August 1977, a new facility opened near Woodland Park.
On June 6, Sally Welder, who is still the Woodland Montessori School’s director, joined teachers, students, parents and community members to celebrate the end of the school’s 40th year at the Woodland Park site. The next day, on June 7, Woodland’s sister school, Kalispell Montessori Elementary (KME), held its own end-of-year celebration.
“I’ve had a lot of fun in these 40-some years,” said Welder, who doesn’t have any immediate plans of retirement even after Terry retired from teaching at KME a few years ago.
More Montessori programs have emerged in the Flathead over the years, including one at Helena Flats School, one of the only two public school districts in Montana to offer the educational model, along with Helena Public Schools. Montessori as a whole has caught on throughout Montana, particularly in Bozeman and Missoula, which have numerous schools. Welder isn’t surprised by the growth.
“Montessori has the ability to sell itself,” she said. “Because of the amount of independence that students have, they love learning and they also learn to be leaders in their community, and that’s all part of the Montessori philosophy.”
Meanwhile, the outgrowths of the original Flathead Montessori Society, Woodland and KME, have continued evolving. The elementary school was once combined with the early-childhood and kindergarten programs but moved into its own facility on Willow Glen Drive in 1999, where it hosts students in first through sixth grade.
The Montessori Method is named after Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator who developed her educational ideas and approaches in the early 20th century. Woodland Montessori describes the philosophy as emphasizing “the individual child’s initiative and independence, allowing him or her to progress through an orderly series of structured learning activities” at the child’s own pace.
Terms used to explain Montessori include “child-centered approach” and meeting the needs of the “whole child,” as well as “life-long learners and leaders.” The Woodland school’s online summary of the method says Montessori differs from traditional school systems in three primary ways: the use of multi-aged classrooms in which older children help guide younger classmates, a focus on developing “abstract understanding from sequenced concrete experiences,” and individualized programs for each child.
“Maria Montessori’s philosophy derives from the notion of the child as an individual who is on a journey of self-discovery, creating the adult she is to become,” the school states.
On a Wednesday afternoon, KME Principal Heather Wyrick took a break from refereeing a “world cup” soccer match, featuring teams made up of all grades of the elementary school, to discuss qualities that make Montessori unique. For instance, children can leave the classroom to use the bathroom as necessary and snack whenever they’re hungry, although that independence comes with expectations of achievement in their work.
Moreover, a teacher will provide a base lesson and material, and if a child is interested in exploring it more or discovering derivative subject matter, he or she is free — encouraged — to do so on their own, with the teacher’s continued guidance and oversight. Kids can do such research through hands-on work, online, books in either the school’s library or ones obtained from regular trips to the public library, and anywhere else their curiosity takes them.
Woodland tailors its methods to its early-childhood and kindergarten students, while the elementary adapts the foundational Montessori concepts to the ages of its students. Whether students attend one or the other, or frequently both, they often go on to be the leaders their Montessori teachers hoped they would be.
This year’s lists of honors students at both Kalispell high schools, as well as the list of students who took the demanding International Baccalaureate (IB) route at Flathead High School, feature a high ratio of Woodland Montessori and KME graduates. A handful of them spoke at the end-of-year celebration.
One of those students, Grace Cady, who recently graduated from Flathead High School with honors as a full IB student, said her years in Montessori, from preschool through sixth grade, molded her as a person as much as a student.
“I always felt like it was home,” she said. “It’s the place that made me who I am today. I didn’t see it when I was younger, but as I got older I realized that everything about this place shaped who I am today, and it was all intentional.”
David Cummings, a teacher at KME since 2001 and currently the fourth- through sixth-grade teacher there, also invokes imagery of home and family when describing the school and the relationships it fosters. He points out that he gets the students for three years, not only one, and gets to know the others well during their three earlier years there.
“I really feel like each one of these kids is my kid,” he said. “There really is that pride in watching them become adults.”
Cummings and Wyrick both praise Sally and Terry Welder for helping lay the groundwork for Montessori in the Flathead, and then growing it and nurturing it for the next four decades.
“It wouldn’t be what it is without them,” Cummings said. “They basically dedicated their lives to building this.”