Back to class for Wildwood Montessori students

Mike Milbrandt
Students of Wildwood Montessori enjoy a deilcious lunch with their Guide Leader. From left, are: Eli, Brenna, Clarissa Sparkl, Taya, and Hannah.

The Montevideo Wildwood Montessori school is facing the same challenges as other schools when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month, the school re-opened after being closed this past March due to the virus.

The school, which opened in 2017 under the direction of Koreen Thompson, is now being led by Clarissa Sparkl and Katie Pieh. Thompson and her family moved to Spain last year to begin a Montessori school.

Sparkl is the school’s Primary Teacher Leader, and Pieh is the Toddler Teacher Leader. The students range in age from toddlers to kindergartners.

Wildwood Montessori utilizes the Montessori method, which is a child-centered educational approach. The founder of the method, Maria Montessori, was an Italian physician who developed the educational philosophy in the late 1800s.

Sparkl spoke about operating Wildwood Montessori during COVID-19. “Things have been going well,” she said. “Like any other school, we’ve had our ups and downs, but every day is different and we always seem to have a lot of fun!” Wildwood’s students have been back in class for about a month now, after a three month hiatus. “Due to the pandemic, we ended our school year on March 18,” said Sparkl, “so they missed school from March 18 to June 8. What we’re doing now isn’t summer break; we’re making up for the time that we missed!”

As COVID-19 restrictions began to be relaxed at the end of May, Sparkl and Pieh’s thoughts turned to preparing to re-open the school. Sparkl said: “We decided to do a gradual re-opening. First it was one family, then it was two families. We fully re-opened on June 8; it was sort of a soft re-opening.”

Not all of the students came back on June 8. “We had one family where the mom works in health care,” explained Sparkl. “She didn’t want to risk her child being exposed to something and then having herself being exposed. We understood because it was the best decision for everyone.”

Before resuming classes, Sparkl and Pieh spent a lot of time sanitizing their school. “We cleaned everything from top to bottom. Currently we are holding classes Mondays through Thursdays, and Fridays are reserved for deep cleaning,” said Sparkl.

According to Sparkl, parents are not allowed to enter the school for the time being. “The parents drop their kids off at the front of the house, then we check the kids’ temperature with a forehead thermometer. If the temp is ok, the kids can go in the house,” she said. “We’re really trying to limit risks to exposure.”

For safety, Wildwood Montessori is following all guidelines from the Minnesota Department of Health. “When I take their temperature, I wear a face mask as we are in such close proximity,” said Sparkl. “If we were a Montessori center with more students, then staff would wear masks all the time. Right now, we are classified as a family child day care, so we follow those guidelines.”

Prior to the school’s shut down in March, 10 children were enrolled at Wildwood; now there are eight. Sparkl said: “We’ll have three students enrolling this fall, and two of our kindergartners will be leaving us.”

Sparkl spoke about the Montessori approach to education. She said: “Our approach is that everything we do is child directed. The child engages in the work, and they choose what they would like to do, whether it’s arithmetic, language, or another choice. The kids are able to absorb their experiences more because it is something they are choosing.”

An important part of the learning process in the Montessori method is recognizing the different sensitive periods of learning each child goes through. “There are sensitive periods for language, movement, and music, for example,” said Sparkl. “So what we try to do is tap into those sensitive periods of learning by offering the kids the tools they need to explore those things.”

Although it would seem that Sparkl and Pieh would be called teachers, their role in the Montessori method goes by a different name. “We are known as Guides, not teachers, because we don’t stand up in front of a classroom and say that two plus two equals four,” said Sparkl. “We give children materials and guide the children as they use those materials to see that two plus two equals four.”

Wildwood Montessori students have been made aware of COVID-19. Sparkl said: “We’ve had a lot of discussions with our students about COVID-19. Anytime the students do food preparation, we reinforce the idea that it is really important to wash our hands. We push hygiene a lot!”

Sparkl then asked one of her students what was the first thing they do when they come in from the outside. The little boy, in what could have been a clip from Art Linkletter’s “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” replied without hesitation: “Make coffee!” When Sparkl asked him what else they do, the boy said: “Take our shoes off and wash our hands!”

For Sparkl and Pieh, COVID-19 has not been so much a challenge as an opportunity to learn the importance of good hygiene. “We turn everything into a learning opportunity,” said Sparkl.

As a group, the kids decided to try something different with the recycling. “They decided they wanted to turn all of our recycling into animal houses for stray animals, so they painted the recycling to make pretty homes for them,” said Sparkl.

Despite COVID-19, Sparkl and Pieh are looking forward to providing continued child-directed education this fall and beyond