An interview with … Deborah Thompson and Denise Orosa, Montessori By The Sea (1 of 2)

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Montessori By The Sea

Deborah Thompson and Kourtni Jackson established Montessori By The Sea in the year 2000 to provide a Montessori education for their own children, and in response to the demand from parents for more local opportunities for Montessori education.

The school, located on Prospect Point Road, was the first in the Cayman Islands to offer Montessori education at the Elementary level. Montessori By The Sea recently finished a school year of celebrations to mark its 20th Anniversary.

In May, Montessori By The Sea became the first public or private primary school in Cayman to receive the highest rating of ‘Excellent’ from the Office of Education Standards. Additionally, it was one of the first schools to earn ‘Excellent’ marks in all individual areas of assessment.

Denise Orosa is the Curriculum and Communications Coordinator at Montessori By The Sea, which has about 140 students ranging in age from 21 months to 12 years.

In the first half of this interview, Thompson and Orosa discuss the school’s founding and experience this school year following the COVID-19 lockdown.

In the second half (to be published in the coming days), they talk about achieving the school’s rating of ‘Excellent’, plans going forward, and misconceptions about Montessori education.

— Can you please talk about your background and starting Montessori By The Sea?

THOMPSON: My business partner Kourtni Jackson and I started this school 20 years ago. We actually started it because of our own children.

My son Nico was 3 at the time, and Kourtni’s daughter Ciara was 2 ½.  Kourtni had a degree in Early Childhood Education and had her Montessori training and experience working in a Montessori school, and I had a business degree from New York University and a graduate degree from Florida International University.

When my son was born, I had all these ideas about what I wanted for him and how I wanted it to be different from the traditional education system that I went through. I have nothing against a traditional education system, but I wanted something more holistic for my son.

At the time, waitlists to get into a Montessori school were years long, and none of the schools had a Montessori Elementary Program.

At that point, I thought, I’m going to have to get trained myself and possibly homeschool my child for a bit to give him the education I want him to have. Fortunately, I was approached by our initial investor as he also had a son the same age as Nico and was having a hard time getting his son into a Montessori school as well.

Back then, I had briefly met Kourtni through a mutual friend. Knowing that Kourtni was Montessori trained and experienced, I approached her about the opportunity and let her know that I wanted to pick her brain about Montessori. The timing was perfect; Kourtni had always wanted to open a Montessori school and shared everything she knew about Montessori education and what she envisioned for her own child.  As we chatted, we decided to capitalize on the opportunity and so Montessori By The Sea was born.

We went through the usual steps. We did the business plan, went back to the investor, secured the loan, and then purchased this land and started the building process. Eddie Thompson, who was my husband at the time was in construction — he was an architect and he designed and built the school.

Then we opened our doors, and we were very fortunate that we had people that were willing to take a chance on 2 unknown people who were starting a new school. It probably had a bit to do with the demand for preschools then, so more people were willing to take a chance.

When we started off, we had a Toddler room and one Casa classroom. In our Toddler room, we had a wide age range from children as young as 9 months to almost 2. We had children who were crawling, learning to walk and those who were walking. It was quite interesting. After the first year, we realized that we needed to make a change to our Toddler Program and raised the age to 18 months. Our Casa Program started off with children from 2 ½ to 5 years old, and it really took off.

Our group of pioneering families really liked what they were seeing in their children as they thrived in the Montessori environment. As their children were approaching the end of the Casa Program, they were willing to support us starting an Elementary Program. We thought about it and had our heart-to-heart talk and decided, yes, we’ll go ahead and do an elementary school.

As our children grew up, each year we added a level to our Program. In our Lower Elementary, obviously we started with Grade 1, then 2, then 3. Then, we had children for the whole 3-year cycle, and once they finished Lower Elementary, the families wanted to keep going, so we created the Upper Elementary Program, which encompassed Grades 4, 5 and 6.

At one point we had a Middle Years Program, which spanned Grades 7 and 8. We really believed in the Middle Years Program. It was a great transition from Montessori to a more traditional style of teaching. We had that for many years but ultimately it was not viable because the class size kept fluctuating.

We hung on to it as long as we could but given where the children were in their stage of adolescent development and what they needed socially, it was difficult to consistently maintain the class size and give them what they needed in that regard. We then scaled back and capped our Programs at the end of Upper Elementary in Grade 6, which is what we continue to have right now.

— I have heard people say now that it is generally more difficult to secure spots in preschool or primary programmes than in secondary years.

THOMPSON: It has changed over the years. At the time when we had the Middle Years Program it was easier I think for a child leaving us to get into high school than it is today. It just depends on what’s happening in any of the high schools at the time because it changes depending on the particular year that spots are available.  That’s where it becomes a tricky decision for families to make because they may really enjoy having their children here, but they can’t take the chance on their spot disappearing; what then are they supposed to do?

Most of the families here tend to choose either Cayman Prep or St. Ignatius if they want their children to end up going to the UK, or CIS if they want the International Baccalaureate Program or a more American-based system. Some of our families choose to go overseas or to home school their children after leaving Montessori By The Sea.

— How has the past school year been impacted by COVID-19? Were there major changes or was it mostly ‘business as usual’?

OROSA: I wouldn’t say it was business as usual. We started off the year being ‘on guard’ or on ‘high alert’ because we weren’t really sure how the year was going to turn out.

If you remember, at the beginning of the year there was a staggered start for a couple of days, where some children started off online and some were starting on-site.

THOMPSON: It was a bit of an adjustment. If I had to characterize the year, we were on guard, not sure, and trying to be as prepared as possible for anything that could happen.

OROSA: I know lockdown was challenging for all schools, but I would say for Montessori schools in particular it was especially challenging because a lot of our classroom practices are very materials-based. The materials we use are very specific. This is not necessarily material you can easily make at home or replicate at home, so that presented new challenges to Montessori schools.

Going back to this past school year, I’d say we started off trying to be as prepared as possible, but as you can imagine that comes with a great deal of stress because you’re trying to think ahead of all the different possibilities. I think we did the best we could, and I would say that we were as organized as we could be.

THOMPSON: We had all our plans, but nobody was sure if things were going to remain on plan, or if something would happen with the pandemic and we would all have to shut down again. We had to be prepared for that.

We had to be sure that our teachers obtained training over the summer. They basically got an intensive course on online education; then we had to think about how to adjust and hone what we’ve learned to best suit our philosophy and methods as a Montessori school. What can we do, what can we learn from it?

OROSA: We were trying to anticipate how the time away from on-site schooling would affect the children. That was definitely at the forefront of our minds, in terms of, how will it affect children emotionally, how much time is it going to take to reestablish routines and classroom practices. That probably took a little longer than normal.

We did see the effects of a prolonged period away from the classroom. But ultimately on the whole, when you consider everything on a global scale, we’re so lucky.

We have that to carry home, that we’re so fortunate in that we’ve been able to operate a full school year compared to the rest of the world.  Many of us have relatives in other countries, and the bulk of the children have spent most of their school year at home. We’re so grateful that we had as normal a school year as it could be.

THOMPSON: Recognizing that we didn’t have the opportunity to do our usual normalization procedures, we saw the impact of that throughout the year. I wouldn’t say it was a completely normal year. It wasn’t drastically different, but …

OROSA: It was noticeable. I would say it was a different school year, but ultimately, we all got through it together.  I was definitely the pessimist in the office where every 3 weeks I would say, “We’re going to end up in lockdown!”.

THOMPSON: I was the one saying, bite your tongue and negate those words. It is not going to happen.

OROSA: I felt like there was a balanced perspective in the office. There was always this balance of trying to be ready, trying to anticipate, but at the same time letting everyone have the time and space so they could just enjoy the fact that we were all in school with each other, all together.

THOMPSON: And to try not to let uncertainty and worry impact where we were.

Even though our admin team is a small one — it’s really just the 4 of us — I think everybody brings to bear their strengths and we balance each other out. If I’m going to be overly optimistic, Denise is going to say, well we also need to be practical.

OROSA: I was really a pessimist. <laughs>

THOMPSON: Practical. <laughs>

OROSA: The children obviously were great. The children are always so much more resilient than the adults.

We made it all through the year together, which is fantastic.

— I’ve been reading reports of significant learning gaps for students who did online learning for much or all of the year, now that spring standardised test results are coming out.

THOMPSON: It’s one of those things, but I would say that in a traditional system, there is a lot of emphasis put on standardized teaching, whereas with Montessori, the philosophy lends itself more to teaching children how to learn.

As such, we do not put our emphasis on the results of a standardized test, instead the test may be used to highlight where there may be gaps but the focus is on the learning and progress that is occurring which is being demonstrated in the classroom in a variety of ways and is being correlated to where students are in different points in the curriculum.

But if children know how to learn, if they know how to access information, even if they may not have covered particular material in a curriculum, they will make progress when presented with something new. Because we approach things holistically, I think there is still a lot that they can gain from any experience, even from lockdown.

All of that also depends on, getting into a whole other area, what the child’s experience was, depending on what was going on with their particular family. Everybody’s family was dealing with something different. Some were very fortunate, some were not. Some were dealing with loss of family, some were not.

There were so many other factors that come to light, but I do think it gives us a good opportunity to look at how we assess children’s learning and progress beyond a cumulative exam.

You do have to have some measures, so I’m not trying to knock standardized testing in any way, but the pandemic has been a good opportunity to look at what kind of learning and progress can occur, and how we are going to measure this so that it is more than just about meeting certain ‘standards’.

— Right, so you reexamine how you define progress and how you might measure that. What did your school learn from the pandemic, and what did you take away from it?

OROSA: Upon reflection, I think one of the strengths that the school has is that as a small school, it was quite a nimble school. We could make decisions really quickly and put things into place really quickly.

What happened to us is, they released the decision to lock everyone down Friday afternoon. It was something like 4.30 in the afternoon and we were saying, “What??”!

THOMPSON: We were in a staff meeting trying to prepare for what would happen if we had to close the school.

OROSA: We did have everything ready by Monday, so the children didn’t ‘miss a day of school’ if you were to look at it that way.

In our case, the willingness to change and adapt depending on what was happening and the feedback we were getting, that was a real blessing.

We were able to do something that worked for the whole community because it wasn’t just the children, obviously, we were also dealing with parents and staff.

Everyone was trying to adapt to, I think the favorite word was, ‘unprecedented times’.

THOMPSON: I think the results were really good. I think you were quite instrumental in this, Denise. We were looking forward, and we weren’t just waiting to see what would happen.

There were plans in place and our thinking at the time was, “If we don’t have to use all these plans, great, but … should we have to, they’re there.”.

In using them, the first time you do anything you learn and tweak as you go along. As Denise said, because we are a small school, as you are learning and tweaking you can do it pretty quickly.

DENISE: Yes, without the bureaucratic hierarchy of decision-making.

We made a conscious choice to really focus on maintaining connections and consistency. We tried to focus on keeping certain practices the same when we switched to an online format.

I think focusing on those things, over possibly other things, especially in the beginning really helped to make that transition as painless as possible and minimized the growing pains in that process.

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