A Hindu woman dressed in a sari directs a 15-person staff and more than 100 children at Grace Montessori School in Allentown, Pa. A teacher wears a traditional Muslim hajab. Another directs the youth choir at a local synagogue. Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is offered weekly on a voluntary basis. First names of the children enrolled this year include Isaiah, Lucy, Chloe, Noah, Jalen, Jalious, Jhaleigh, Sanskriti, Sonakshi, Auroni, Hani, Ishaan, Raphael, Neha, Elian, Bhavna, Mustafa, Zia, Lourdes, Lino, Jesjka, Angelo, Seyla, Juan Pablo, Masatami, Magdalena and Devan.
An outreach ministry of Grace Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Bethlehem, Grace invites families from all economic, ethnic, religious and social backgrounds to be part of the school community. A major partner in the downtown City Centre Redevelopment Project, the school offers scholarships for families who usually can’t afford a quality Montessori experience for their children.
Developed by Dr. Maria Montessori, the Montessori Method is an educational approach that aims to free the child’s potential for self-development. The method consists of a sequence of motor, sensory and intellectual activities and materials, which let children largely teach themselves in a “prepared environment” under the observations of a specially trained teacher.
Features of the method include emphasis on the teacher’s role, motor and sensory development, early exposure to learning and scientifically designed materials. It also involves concrete materials to reinforce abstract ideas, learning by doing, repetition and mastery of skills, a structured environment, indirect-individualization instruction, and its broad application with children of various ages, cultures and types.
Debika Demazumder, the school’s director, holds a MS in sociology from the University of Kalyani, India, where she did doctoral research in child psychology, and a master’s degree in sociology from St. John’s University, New York.
Known as “Ms. Debika,” she is thoroughly steeped in the Montessori method. Her mother was trained as a teacher by Maria Montessori. Demazumder founded two Montessori schools in Manhattan, has taught around the world, served as a resident consultant to school districts establishing Montessori magnet schools and is a member of a team that travels nationally to certify Montessori schools.
Size no barrier
A downtown church of fewer than 100 families, Grace never has allowed smallness to define it. It was described a few years ago at a national conference on excellent congregations as perhaps the largest small church in the United States. Though the church’s operating budget is about $150,000, the combined budgets of the church and its three related ministries -- Grace Montessori School, AIDS Outreach of the Lehigh Valley and Grace Community Foundation, the legal name of the food bank -- is approximately $850,000.
Thirteen years ago, Cathy Constantin-Reid, a trained Montessori teacher and a volunteer at the food bank at Grace Church, noticed that children of some clients needed help to succeed in school and beyond. While their parents waited to receive bags of food, she took seven children aside. That was the beginning of Grace Montessori School. It soon began a steady evolution into a unique, award-winning school and certified Montessori teacher-training site (one of fewer than 40 in the United States), with a reputation for educational excellence, moral grounding and diversity.
As the school grew, it occupied most of the church’s space. To accommodate ever-increasing enrollment, a secondary site opened in 2000. The school moved into its new, purpose-built, state-of-the-art City Center site – a joint project with the Allentown Parking Authority and Theatre Outlet — in January.
“At the beginning of this school year, I saw our school shake off the dust of the summer and come back to life,” said Malloy. “I met with the faculty – white and black and Latina; Muslim and Hindu and Jewish and Christian of every sort – and it was like beholding the face of God. I saw new families come to have their children assessed for placement – every imaginable color, every imaginable nationality; two-parent families, single-parent families; more than one third of them too poor to pay but welcome anyway, because that’s how we do things at Grace Montessori School.”