One woman's school of dreams

The Baltimore Sun

For Marie Atalla, the small, white-paneled house and green yard on quiet College Road in Sykesville represents the fulfillment of a dream.

After searching for the right location, renovating and planning, Atalla, who grew up in Egypt, is set to open Ava Wanas Montessori School, for children 2 to 5 years old, this fall.

The school follows the decades-old Montessori School of Westminster and Mount Airy's Misty Mountain Montessori, a program going into its fifth year, said Marliese Roth, its director.

Atalla has seen the power of the Montessori method, she said, from working at Columbia's Julia Brown Montessori School, which her older son attended. Now 8 and in public school, Anthony performs above grade level, she said.

"I'm very fond of Dr. Maria Montessori's philosophy," said the mother of two, referring to the Italian physician behind the century-old education method.

For Atalla, Ava Wanas represents a chance to put that philosophy into practice - and accurately. She was first sponsored for her training for ages 3 to 6 in 2003, Atalla said, and followed with training for ages birth to 3 on her own when she started thinking about launching a school.

"I started seeing how other teachers misinterpret this wonderful woman's achievements, and it frustrated me," Atalla said. "If the philosophy isn't applied in the right way, then the children don't get to benefit from it. ... I really want to grasp and absorb what [Montessori] wanted to achieve, what she did achieve."

Among the core principles behind the method is the belief that children are capable of extraordinary growth if they are allowed to grow, said Marilyn Stewart, president of the board of the American Montessori Society. In a true Montessori setting, Stewart said, "the environment is going to be very carefully prepared, very neat and organized, filled with enticing materials that promote growth" in such areas as physical dexterity, language acquisition or math, depending on the age group. The student-centered zone groups multiple ages together, she said.

"In a Montessori classroom, when you walk in, you see children everywhere all engaged in meaningful activity, and the teacher really going from one group of children or one individual child to another," Stewart said. "The kids are making extraordinary growth because they're not stopped."

Yet some Montessori teachers Atalla has encountered have lacked classroom-management skills, or interrupted the children's concentration in their independent learning. Indeed, Nancy Title, who heads the Westminster school, said people tend to think Montessori is a trademark, a guarantee of consistent standards.

"They're all individual schools. They're all different," said Title, whose school caters to ages 3 through ninth grade. "You really, really have to look into the school itself."

Stewart agreed. "Absolutely anybody could open up a school and say, 'This is a Montessori school.' "

Title said she asks parents to come and observe, or talk to other parents, before enrolling their children. Atalla said she hopes to start with a handful of children, then build from there. After the first year, she would like to add a kindergarten program, she said. She also has plans for a French enrichment program, and wants to incorporate art into the classroom.

For information on the Ava Wanas Montessori School, e-mail

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