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LOCAL News :: Children : Education : Indymedia

Montessori Program Offers Hope to Urban Youth

A new Montessori program is helping to transform the lives of preschool children in the urban village of Greater Fulton Hill.
Richmond, Va. — Children at the new Montessori preschool program in Fulton Hill have much in common with the pupils Maria Montessori first taught 100 years ago. Like her first students, these children are succeeding in the classroom — despite the economic challenges their families face.


"The program has made a dramatic, positive difference in my children's lives," said Shebony Davis, whose 3-year-old twins are in the program. "They show so much pride in their work. This program allows my daughter to focus on what she likes to learn. When the kids miss school, they cry."

"I like the program's structure and the boundaries, but within that you also have freedom, which builds self-confidence and independence," said Erika Holmes, whose 3-year-old daughter Ameenah attends the program. Because the program lets Ameenah move at her own pace, her reading skills have improved rapidly.

In addition to studying languages, geography and math, the children are also learning valuable social skills and empathy for one another. "I haven't seen this much growth educationally and socially at any other program. My daughter is so much more outgoing. Ms. Sarah is excellent. She just opens them up to so many different cultures," Davis said.


Lead teacher Sarah Danielski and assistant teacher Karen Ress currently instruct 12 three- and four-year-olds at the school. The Montessori curriculum they teach meets and surpasses all of the SOL requirements for kindergarten in Virginia.

After years with insufficient schools, libraries and childcare resources, the Neighborhood Resource Center, a grassroots non-profit organization, mobilized to start the preschool Montessori program this past fall.

"We see the Montessori program as way to build a strong foundation in the community, starting with our most valuable resource — our children," said Mary Lou Decossaux, Executive Director of the NRC. A catalyst for positive change in the neighborhood, the NRC's goal is to provide a safe, social environment where neighbors can build relationships, access resources, develop skills and rebuild their community.

In 2002, the NRC raised money to purchase the old Fulton Hill post office and with help from volunteers, transformed the abandoned building into a vibrant community center. The center officially opened in January 2005 and today it sponsors the preschool, in addition to many other educational and creative programs.

Teachers from other area Montessori schools volunteered time to help start the school. "Support from the Montessori community throughout Richmond was overwhelming," said Danielski. "They see how valuable the Fulton Hill program is and the positive impact it's making in these kids' lives. There is no more worthwhile investment to make in a child's life than a quality preschool education."

Through a generous Robins Foundation grant, the NRC was able to pay for teachers' salaries and the Montessori materials needed to kick-start the program. A sliding scale of fees based on parent income helps defray on-going costs.

Funding for the NRC's Montessori program, however, runs out in August 2007. In addition, the NRC is looking to expand the half-day program to a full day. Altogether, the non-profit must raise $90,000 by the end of the summer to continue the program.

A new fundraising committee will address this next challenge. The NRC is actively seeking support from the community to continue offering the program on a sliding scale basis.

High quality early care and education like the Montessori program at the NRC along with strong family support programs are the best strategies for ensuring children enter school with the language, reasoning, social, and motor skills needed to succeed, according to Barbara Couto Sipe, Success By 6 Director of Planning and Community Mobilization.

"Multiple research studies show that low-income children who attend high quality early care and education are more likely to graduate high school, attend college, and become successful members of society," said Sipe.

"With public Montessori schools opening across the country, many hope Richmond Public Schools will seize the opportunity to open a Montessori Elementary School in the Fulton community," said Mary Ellen Otto, a volunteer for the NRC's reading program. "Our inner city children deserve a chance to learn by this method."

"Kids are dropping out of middle and high school at alarming rates," said Decossaux. "The NRC's Montessori preschool is providing neighborhood kids with the educational and social skills they will need to be successful in school and in life. You can see it on their faces...more and more confidence, more and more joy."

Greater Fulton Hill is home to 4,600 residents from Fulton, Fulton Hill and Montrose Heights. They face troubling levels of unemployment, crime and poverty. 41% of residents live on less than $15,000 per year. Most households are headed by single working mothers who cannot afford childcare.

In addition to the Montessori program, the NRC is creating more educational opportunities through GED classes, computer instruction and tutoring. Other programs, such as dance, art, theater, Tae Kwon Do, Girl Scouts and story time, foster creativity and confidence in youth. The Young Writer's Club encourages area youth to express themselves through music. A new recording studio enables them to compose, record and mix their own music.

NRC programs are supported by a library, classroom with internet access, tot library, a performance and meeting space, and the recording studio. A whole foods café is currently under construction. The center also hosts social and cultural events, and serves as home base for local civic, business and neighborhood watch groups.

To learn more about the center, become involved or to make a donation to the 501(c)3 non-profit contact the Neighborhood Resource Center at: 1519 Williamsburg Road Richmond, VA. 23231 or by calling 864-5797.


Bridgette Huff
Neighborhood Resource Center of Greater Fulton Hill
phone: (804) 864-5797
fax: (804) 622-7523
huffbw (at) gmail.com

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