American Indian philosophy alive in Native Montessori School
PORTLAND, Ore. - Jasmine's fingers close around the large shape of South
America and she tries the colorful piece different ways until she fits the
continent into the six-piece puzzle taking shape on the table in front of
her. She's engrossed and having fun; and once she masters the puzzle,
Jasmine will move on to a more challenging task. But only when she's ready
- when she wants to.
It's reminiscent of the way Navajo weavers teach their children: when they
get old enough to be interested, mothers let them try small things with
which they can succeed. Little by little, they come to the world of adult
"It's a manner of thinking that respects the humanity of individuals,"
Project Lead Mary Mueller said, "[and] honors how people normally work and
The philosophy of learning and interacting is woven throughout the pilot
Native Montessori School in Portland, a project currently operating under
the second year of a three-year $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of
Education. The approach doesn't stop with the educational curriculum,
though. The school has a single table with two chairs for snacking, so the
22 children enrolled in the full-time program take turns. "When a child
decides he or she wants a snack - and the school provides healthy ones:
fruit, nuts, smoked salmon - they see if the table is free and then they
get a friend, put on their aprons and go have one," said Mueller. "They
also clean up when they're done. That way they appreciate everything that
is involved and learn to take responsibility."
The unstructured approach goes for nap time, too. "It's the same with
resting," Mueller said, "it's up to the children to decide if they are
tired and would like to take a break."
"It's a wonderful way to work with children," Mueller added. "We put pow
wow music on when a child wants to lay down for a while." Chauncey Sams, a
Umatilla in Spider Man shoes, denim pants and a striped polo shirt, said,
"I love to rest to pow wow music." Sams closes his big brown eyes down on a
contented, chunky face.
The Native Montessori School is the vision of Norrine Smokey-Smith, Title
VII coordinator in the Portland Public Schools Indian Education Program.
Smokey-Smith was impressed by how well her daughter and several other
Native students with a Montessori preschool experience excelled in public
After learning about a tribally-run Montessori program on the Tulalip
Reservation in Washington, Smokey-Smith wanted to replicate the experience
for the larger urban community of American Indians in Portland. She is
investigating funding options to keep the well-received pilot project in
operation beyond 2006, when the federal grant funds run out. Currently the
program is free to families without charge. The savings are considerable,
with average Montessori programs running from $700 to $1,200 monthly.
Goals of the Native Montessori School include increasing reading readiness
skills in children 3 - 5 via culturally-relevant approaches and supporting
parents so they can best help their kids. When parents enroll their
children in the preschool, they commit to a two-month course in Positive
Indian Parenting and a 30-week home instruction program called HIPPY.
A key issue addressed in Smokey-Smith's initial grant is the idea that
American Indian parents tend to keep their children at home as long as
possible before surrendering them to public schools. Fears that children
will be forced into systems that do not consider cultural differences seem
to underscore that trend.
By providing a culturally-sensitive curriculum that gives children pride in
their Native heritage and the confidence they need to address adults in
formal situations, Portland's Native Montessori School hopes to inspire new
attitudes and give children the foundation they need to be successful not
only in school but in life.
In addition to skills kids can use in school, the program provides an array
of cultural enrichment activities specific to the tribes. Dancing, weaving
and drumming are all in a day's work. The kids especially had fun when they
got to haul Jack Johnson's cooler containing an elk hide up from the truck
by rope. Once inside, they helped Johnson prepare the hide and make a drum.
The school's current enrollment is a mix of socio-economic classes, with
members of the Siletz, Umatilla, Salt River Pima, Yakama, Yankton Sioux,
Nez Perce, and Sandia Pueblo tribes, among others, represented. No matter
the background, though, according to Mueller, "children respond immediately
to the environment of our school. While it's true that some have trouble
connecting and have behaviors that are challenging to manage, we have the
advantage of a part-time nurse and social worker from the Native American
Rehabilitation Association. With this interdisciplinary team, we help
children whose behaviors interfere with their ability to have a successful
If Portland's Native Montessori School sounds like something you wish was
available for your own children, you're not alone. While Mueller is not
American Indian, she was married to a Hopi/Nez Perce man and her children
are half-Native. "My children's father grew up in Phoenix without the
support of his tribes. He remembers separate drinking fountains for whites
and Indians, and because of those types of experiences, he wasn't able to
share positive things from his cultures with the children," said Mueller.
"Even back then, though, I found help in the Pacific Indian Preschool
"Now that I have grandchildren, I'm hoping that they will be able to take
advantage of programs like ours here in Portland. Having that kind of
culturally-appropriate support makes all the difference with urban Indians
as they navigate the trail between the path of their grandmothers and the
modern world in which they find themselves."