The Morning Call
Jan. 12, 2013
By Libby House
Did you know Maria Montessori's first classroom, Casa del Bambini (House of Children), was founded in 1907 in a tenement in Rome? The first Italian woman to receive a medical degree, Montessori started her school with 50 poor children living in a slum and successfully taught them, using her method based on the belief that each child has within his or her own potential that can be developed fully when allowed to work independently, with great educational materials and help from highly trained teachers. News of her school quickly spread throughout the world, as did the highly respected Montessori Method.
While most people think of Montessori schools as located in leafy suburban locales or cosmopolitan areas, did you know that a very successful Montessori School has been operating in inner-city Allentown for the past 20 years? A Montessori School in downtown, drawing families with children from all over the Lehigh Valley?
It may seem an oddity, but Grace Montessori School, on Linden Street between Eighth and Ninth streets, in the ground floor of the former Hess Brothers parking garage, is in a beautifully renovated state-of-the-art facility. It is alive, well and happily teaching approximately 100 children (ages 3 to 11) each year from Allentown, Bethlehem and the surrounding areas.
It was founded by Cathy Constantin Reid in 1992 to meet the need for excellent preschool education for children whose families were clients of the Grace Episcopal Church Food Pantry. From the start the school provided scholarships for children whose families could not otherwise give them a Montessori education.
The mission became to reserve 30 percent of the enrollment for children from economically disadvantaged families. The intention was never for an exclusive school, but an inclusive one that would bring in children from all socio-economic, cultural, religious and ethnic groups to learn and play together.
After getting over the initial surprise that a Montessori school had chosen an urban location, suburban parents came and saw the beautiful classrooms consisting of high-quality Montessori materials and furniture, all under the loving and careful supervision of Montessori-certified teachers. And they enrolled their children by the scores. Winning over these parents came quickly once the school's reputation for excellent early childhood education had been established.
But after an initial gift from an anonymous donor to the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem, the questions became: Who will provide the money for all those scholarships? Where will we find the grants? What kind of fundraising can we do so that parents who can afford to send their children to our school do not end up paying higher tuition to underwrite parents lacking income needed to pay for the costs?
That called for a development program that includes grants from Allentown and local foundations, money from companies and individual sponsors, and an annual scholarship benefit auction held by the parents. When parents decide to enroll their children at Grace Montessori School, they demonstrate their willingness to buy into not only the Montessori philosophy but also into the church's inner-city mission for social justice and serving the poor.
The city has provided grants, and foundations such as Harry C. Trexler Trust, Century Fund, Keystone Nazareth Charitable Foundation, The Rider-Pool Foundation, Charles H. Hoch Foundation, Holt Foundation, Just Born, and Talbot Hall Fund have provided support. This year the school became an Opportunity Scholarship Organization, so that companies can funnel some of their state tax money to the school. And our parents worked hard and raised $20,000 for scholarships last spring, while thoroughly enjoying themselves at their auction benefit held at the Allentown BrewWorks.
I'm looking forward to this 20th anniversary year of celebration, including Heritage Day from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, when our families revel in the school's amazing diversity — a mini-Unit Nations — and climaxing in the dedication of a beautiful, new labyrinth to be completed in spring, a gift from Commercial Real Estate Women, Lehigh Valley. I invite you to come and visit our unique and welcoming school.
Libby House is executive director of Grace Montessori School in Allentown.