Over the last 50 years, technological transformation and shifts in curriculum development have rocked, revolutionized and railed public school classrooms nationwide, but at the Julia Brown, a Montessori chain that began in a North Laurel neighborhood, little has changed since the late 1960s.
In largely technology-free classrooms, students from first through third grade sprawl on a large floor mat. Some work on math in pairs using tactile methods while others sit at the edges of mat, reordering strips of paper with the names of American presidents. Exchanging conversation in muted whispers is no anomaly as around 92 students learn in a handful of library-like classrooms in the school tucked away in a Laurel neighborhood. An 18-month old student wobbles down the narrow hallway, carrying a half-gallon jug of milk with his teacher.
"We teach them responsibility at a young age," Brown whispers as he waddles by. "Our goal is to teach the whole child and cultivate each child's individual dignity."
Brown's model of teaching has made her a pioneer in Montessori, a method of learning that emphasizes self-directed activity and syncs students' learning environments with their developmental level, according to Katrina Moller, the Laurel school's administrator. The Brown schools, one of the oldest and largest chains of Montessori schools in the country, was only the second in the state to gain accreditation more than 50 years ago.
Black and white photos from newspapers that chronicle the school's 50-year-history show the classrooms today are near-carbon copies of those from decades ago when Brown, 70, and her husband, Charles, opened Laurel's first Montessori school in the fall of 1967.
The school, which began with 12 students in a Main Street apartment, only the second Montessori school accredited by the state in the 1970s, now has around 400 students enrolled in campuses in Olney, Silver Spring, Columbia and Laurel.
Teachers guide students through sensory-based activities that cultivate color recognition and depth perception, slowly grouping sounds into words and words into sentences. The environment is free of technology, with the exception of the mixed-age group, where students from first through third grade can use a computer to complete basic research. Students are grouped by age, not split into classes by grade level.
At a time when many students in public schools use Promethean boards, learn with Chrome books and have scheduled screen time, Brown said her mantra of no technology is needed now more than ever.
Even though tablets and other devices have sensory-based learning tools that force children to visualize concepts and ideas, the benefit of touching a ball or feeling a block is irreplaceable, she says.
"How long is this going to last? We're going to make it last as long as possible," Brown said.
Samir Ouchikh, a third-grader, sits in one of the Laurel school's classrooms, part of which resembles a dining room. He said he loves writing subtraction equations on paper. Students learn multiplication and other mathematical concepts using colorful strings of beads that hang in his classroom.
After surviving an era when the concept of classroom-based education for children younger than 6 was an anomaly, Brown said she has grown accustomed to challenging conventional methods of learning.
Her frustration with traditional teaching styles grew out of teaching first-grade students at a public school in North Carolina. Decades later, she recalls dividing her students into three reading groups, the red birds, the blue birds and the green birds as they read the iconic "Dick and Jane" series used to teach children reading from the 1930s through the 1970s.
"I was well aware that we were memorizing. We were not really thinking. That was what made the Montessori method very appealing," Brown said.
She studied with former students of Maria Montessori, the Italian educator who pioneered the Montessori-method of teaching, before founding the school in 1967 with her late husband, Charles, who used his engineering background to prop up the school and his wife — physically and emotionally. He scouted a site for the school, helped built the facility and encouraged Julia to take the trainings that led to her vision for the school. He died in 1991.
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Three years after a modest start as a nursery in a Laurel apartment, the couple opened the first branch on Madison Avenue in North Laurel in 1970. They lowered the windows in the building to cater to children, Brown said.
As mothers sought to enter the work force in the early 1970s, the chain capitalized on the need for day care services. Brown added a full-day program based on Montessori and added a program for students up to third grade. Schools in Columbia, Silver Spring and Olney opened as demand grew. Staff are certified in the Montessori method of education, Brown said, and the school recently hired a former student as an educator.
"Word of mouth spread and it spread quickly," Brown said, "and only now is early education finally catching on."
For the Brown family, the chain has remained a family affair. Two of her daughters, Ellen Brown Komesarook and Theresa Brown Leonhart, help manage the schools.
Brown continues to have an active presence in the school. She oversees the branches and pops into classrooms regularly, plops on a chair less than 10 inches from the ground and pitches her thoughts to the students.
On a recent late morning, she directed already-hushed students down the hallway at dismissal, quietly holding a finger to her pursed lips and occasionally interrupting the silence with quiet compliments, a light touch and a gentle smile.
"Here, we teach the self. The self confidence. The self control. The self dignity," she said, standing less than a mile from Route 1's commercial corridor. "It can be a loud world."