Local Montessori School Emphasizes Real-world Learning

Mandie Bonilla-Ortiz helps students like 1st grader Sawyer learn in a unique environment.

St. Croix Valley Montessori is situated on 15 acres about midway between Woodbury and Stillwater. It’s a place where children feed and care for alpacas, miniature donkeys and chickens, where they’re responsible for maintaining the cleanliness of their own classrooms and are encouraged to take their education literally into their own hands. Head of school Valerie Olson says what makes it a Montessori school “is following the methods of Maria Montessori. We provide a learning environment created uniquely for each student.” That learning environment is currently available to about 100 students from ages 16 months to 13 years.

Mandie Bonilla-Ortiz teaches first-to-third graders at the school. She has Montessori teaching certification and a master’s degree in Montessori education from St. Catherine University. Having taught previously at a Montessori school in Milwaukee, she had St. Croix Montessori “in [her] sights for years,” she says. Here, she says, all the pieces critical to a Montessori education are in place: “We have the outdoor environment we’re supposed to have, we have the hands-on learning, we have the priority for peace education. I am given the time and resources to be the best educator I can be.”

Jessica Peterson is the school’s board chair. She and husband Gary have two daughters in the school; an older son began when he was 4 years old. She describes a project her son did when he was 7 or 8. “The topic was sharks. The kids contacted the Minnesota Zoo on their own. They planned the trip, including directions for the driver. At the zoo, the kids met with a shark specialist. When they came back, they wrote a multiple-page paper,” she explains. The difference, she says, “is doing it, instead of sitting in the classroom.”

“Everyone has a specific learning style,” says parent Michelle Horsely. She describes her eighth-grade son, Jack, as “a kinesthetic learner. He likes sports like football and baseball,” she says, and has struggled with reading. “We thought, ‘Could St. Croix Montessori be a better fit [than a previous school]?’ It turns out, it was.” For example, Michelle says in the past, Jack had been “stressed out by science. But he’s grown a big interest in science this year.” That may be attributable, says Michelle, to projects like helping build a new coop for the chickens on campus. Students had to plan, execute and take responsibility for the coop and what it means for the chickens: how they sleep, eat, lay eggs. “It’s the hands-on focus, the real-world applications” that have made the difference for Jack, she says.

Heidi Arnott and her wife Anna Bailey have a daughter (Graham, fourth grade) and a son (Sawyer, first grade) at the school. The children transferred to St. Croix Montessori from another Montessori school in Conn. Heidi says the school’s academics are strong—Graham is doing advanced mathematics—and yet, plenty of space is given to 7-year-old Sawyer to learn to read in his own way. The family loves the easy access to an outdoor environment and notes the school’s 45-minute lunchtime, followed by a generous recess, is particularly civilized. “They eat off real plates and have real conversations,” Heidi says. While the junior high program is currently in flux and Heidi says “adding a high school would be very challenging,” she is not concerned. “I think this program will prepare them for whatever is next.”