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Fifty Years of Learning at a Montessori School

Chickens can be heard clucking from beyond the stone wall next to the one-room schoolhouse on Highview Road. There, “the class of 2019”—four ornamental chickens—are scratching around in a fine-looking pen. The class was raised last spring by the children, aged two through five, of Pound Ridge Montessori School (PRMS—or “Prims” as parents and students call it).

School director Grainne Bellotti pours a scoop of chicken feed into the coop and retrieves two eggs—one brown, the other palest blue. The children watched the chickens grow from eggs in an incubator. There is a video of them squealing with glee watching one chick crack its way out into the world. Every day, one of the 25 children is assigned the task of collecting the eggs and feeding the chickens. It’s an idyllic setting.

Bellotti’s mother, Teresa Whelan, founded PRMS in 1970 (the school will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a gala on March 28). Whelan was one of a group of teachers who popularized and pioneered the Montessori method across the US in the early 1960s.

Today she is semi-retired, living in the farmhouse across the road from PRMS, and very much a vocal advocate for the Montessori method, for the importance of early childhood education, and the work that her daughter does. Whelan has the kind of speaking voice—a southern Irish brogue from rural County Cork—that, as the saying goes, would be soothing reading the contents of a phone book. The school she founded has been described as “a warm hug.” She is beloved by parents not only for her vast knowledge of how to create order and happiness out of the chaos that is toddlerhood, but also for serving spiked punch at the school parents’ days.

The passion that Whelan and her daughter share for the formative early years of a child’s life is invigorating. They tag-team ideas, never veering from a deep dedication to Maria Montessori’s philosophy: “Any new theory on the best way to raise kids? I think ‘well, that’s Montessori,’” says Bellotti. “Another new fad comes along, ‘That’s Montessori, too.’ Everyone thinks there must be a better way out there for some reason, and there isn’t.”

“When I tell someone I run a pre-school, they’re like, ‘Ugh, I can’t even imagine. How do you do that? All those screaming kids all day.’ It’s not though! You have no idea. This is calmer than the rest of my life.” In one art lesson, Bellotti tapes paper to the underneath of all the schools’ tables and has the children paint on their backs upside down to feel what Michelangelo would have while painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. “Some days you can hear a pin drop even with 25 toddlers all together,” her mother adds.

Whelan’s life before founding PRMS sounds like a cross between The Sound of Music and Roman Holiday. After training as a teacher in London, and then completing two years of Montessori training under Mario Montessori, Maria’s son (Maria died in 1952), Whelan and a friend toured Europe in a tiny Fiat 500. She then became the governess to actress Gina Lollobrigida’s son, Milko, and lived in Rome. There, the paparazzi photographed the little boy posting a letter to his mother in Hollywood while she made Strange Bedfellows with Rock Hudson. Whelan was soon asked to start the Wilmington Montessori School in Delaware, by the employees of Dupont. It started with 14 children, now schools 200, and is considered one of the foremost Montessori schools in the country.

It is the steadfastness to Montessori’s methods to which they owe their success and longevity, say Whelan and Bellotti. “That’s what I think has made the difference for 50 years,” says Whelan, “We don’t feel the pressure to make the school into anything else.”

Montessori was the first woman doctor in Rome, and they—the Italian, male medical establishment—didn’t know what to do with her, says Whelan. “So, they put her into the slums and the orphanages in the poorest part of Rome. She understood how to observe and study. Montessori’s is the only scientific approach to education, and she approached it like a doctor. She would watch the children, she never told them what to do.

“The PRMS philosophy respects the child, it follows the child, and it follows Montessori closely and beautifully. As opposed to the other way of thinking, ‘What do we want kids to be?’ she thought the opposite, she watched what they wanted. It’s not complicated. It’s ‘follow the child.’ It’s that simple.”

Photo at top: Grainne Bellotti (standing) and her mother, Teresa Whalen (seated), have devoted their professional lives to nurturing children (and chickens) at Pound Ridge Montessori.

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