Zita Weinstein didn’t have a ready solution for how or where to educate her 5-year-old son when he graduates preschool next year. She was looking for a Jewish Montessori elementary school in the Philadelphia area, and it didn't exist.
Only a few months ago, she had sent Shmuel to a traditional preschool, but then removed him from there, convinced that it wasn’t the right place for him.
After watching him thrive in a Jewish Montessori preschool in the Northeast, she decided that he and her two younger children needed such an environment to learn best.
She had so much confidence in the alternative method of teaching, which shuns letter grades and provides children tools in the classrooms to teach themselves, that she and her husband were prepared to leave their home near Bala Cynwyd and move to New Jersey where there is such an elementary school.
Instead, Weinstein is now in the early stages of planning an elementary school that she hopes to open this fall in Lower Merion. The school plans to start with just first grade, but Weinstein hopes to expand to offer Montessori education through eighth grade. Weinstein, who is Orthodox, said the school would be grounded in Orthodox tradition.
The Montessori method — taking the last name of its founder, an early 20th century Italian educator — features mixed-age classrooms with supplies that provide students the freedom to learn at their own natural pace. Teachers often initially present the activities and then encourage students to work cooperatively.
For example, at the Jewish Montessori school, students from the initial year would remain in the class with students as they start in additional years, with the expectation that older students often help the younger ones.
Weinstein held a meeting March 5 at the Ludington Library Auditorium in Bryn Mawr for interested parents. She said 10 people attended, and two people have already pledged to donate a total of $30,000. They are waiting for 10 families to commit before going forward with the school.
A former systems engineer for an information technology company, Weinstein is spearheading the project but does not plan to teach or serve as an administrator at the school. For the last several years, her primary responsibility has been motherhood.
“I guess God is taking me out of retirement and putting me back in an executive type of role,” Weinstein said. “My mission is to save as many children’s souls as possible. So many children are going through an environment that is not suited for them and their souls are being crushed.”
Weinstein acknowledges that some students can succeed in a traditional environment, but not all students can.
“We sort of categorize our children like they are sheep; everyone has to go through the exact same curriculum at the exact same time,” she said.
The alternative style of teaching has gained greater acceptance but critics have contended that while the nurturing environment gives students a positive self-image, it does not prepare them for competition when it ultimately comes.
Rifka Weber, director of The Gan, a Jewish Montessori preschool in Northeast Philadelphia where Weinstein's son, Shmuel, goes, said Montessori schools often do prepare students for the transition to a traditional school, including providing test-taking skills.
“I believe that children who go through a good Montessori school are better prepared," said Weber, "and have a better sense of what they want to do and have better study skills.”