The first time Karen Bolender-Hart walked into Philomath Montessori School, she felt a meaningful connection on many levels. The mother of a daughter, Rolly, she hadn't been in a room with a lot of small children for a long time "and when I had, it had not been a good experience," she laughed.
But the visit to the well-established Philomath school turned out to be a "dream vision" that Bolender-Hart realized would be the best possible way for her young daughter to learn.
"I knew from the first day that I observed that this was a unique and absorbing environment," Bolender-Hart said Saturday while the school's open house event wrapped up. "I came in here and sat in this chair and I watched these kids work. It just made my heart swell with joy at how much everyone was absorbed in the work that they were doing."
The Philomath Montessori School, which rents classroom space at the College United Methodist Church on Main Street, opened in January 1984. Pauline Tanaka operated the school for more than three decades before handing over director duties three years ago to Jessica Neebe.
Neebe first enrolled her children at the local Montessori school in 2003. She had been familiar with the learning style while living in Pennsylvania.
"I was just looking for a program that was more about really giving my children a holistic education as opposed to just a place to drop them off and pick them up from," Neebe said. "Also at the time, coming in and meeting Doni (Manning-Cyrus) and Pauline, they were just amazing. I ended up doing observation in the classroom and seeing what the program was all about."
Bolender-Hart's little one started at age 2-1/2.
"She just observed for the first six months; she probably didn't touch a thing but as she gained confidence, she discovered what she liked and what she was drawn to," Bolender-Hart said. "I think an important thing for us was the multi-age classroom."
The younger children in the first two years of the program attend for three hours Monday through Thursday mornings. The third-year students attend for a full day and after leaving the Montessori school, typically move right into the first grade.
"I know she was sort of invited and also was compelled to learn stuff that was maybe a little bit beyond her," Bolender-Hart added. "She would sort of take to things that maybe became interesting seeing other kids do them and then having older kids help her. That was really meaningful for her education."
Manning-Cyrus has been a fixture at the Philomath school as a teacher for 20 years now. For 11 years before that, she taught at the Corvallis Montessori School. It's common for new students to come in and observe for a while before they gain confidence and evolve into more "hands-on" with the materials.
"It's a steady pattern of growth but in the third year, it's an explosion of growth," Manning-Cyrus said. "All of these experiences that they've been collecting and all of these skills that they've been mastering, the child puts it all together and then you see explosions in the areas of mathematics, writing, reading."
The school has a maximum enrollment of 25 students, a classroom size that's been the norm since it opened. There are no plans to go beyond that number either with a "no-growth model." The staff includes two trained teachers and one assistant.
"Montessori is based on a scientific observation of children approach, which is cumulative knowledge-based and depends heavily upon the use of manipulatives and it's very individualized learning," Manning-Cyrus said.
Rolly, who is now 6, completed her three years in the program. But her mother has committed to remain involved with the school as a new member on the nonprofit organization's board of directors.
"We got so much for being here for three years," Bolender-Hart said. "We did not want to leave and that's why we're back."
For the second year, the school is raising money through a benefit concert. This year's event runs this Saturday at the Odd Fellows Hall in downtown Corvallis with the doors opening at 7 p.m. Space Neighbors will be the headliner and The Incompatibles will also play. The price of admission includes a light dinner. Beer and hard cider will be available for purchase.
"We're always looking for fundraisers that bring in people from the community from outside our parent group," Neebe said. "So having a concert seemed like a good opportunity to get the community in there. Plus we have some great sponsors."
Those include Block 15, which donates food and beverages to help the school. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 280 is a gold sponsor and several others are contributing as well.