Spring Break is soon! Monday, March 20th - Friday, March 31st
Beyond Stereotypes: Understanding Gender, Socialization & Development
Location: 134 Duane St. Time: 9.15 - 10.15 a.m.
55 Hudson St. More details to follow in the weekly newsletter.
Location: 55 Hudson St. Time: 1.15 - 2.15 p.m.
The Parents League of New York invited Ronnie to write an article they titled From 6 Children to 300: Our Adventurous Path in Lower Manhattan. This full article was featured in their 2022 review and is available below.
I can hardly believe that it’s been almost 50 years since six families responded to the flyers I composed with magic markers and taped to the neighborhood’s lampposts, announcing a new school for young children. I included my landline and a brightly colored note about a school in a loft for children ages 2 through 5, and made sure to buy something I never had, a phone-recorder, to capture the messages that might come in to answer to my postings. The American Montessori Society had a store on Lower Fifth Avenue, along with its membership office. They gave me materials that were mis-ordered and remnants, and sold me beautiful wooden materials, at cost, to help a struggling new school in a place where schools did not exist below Canal Street.
In 1976, Tribeca- the area south of SoHo–was the historical neighborhood called Washington Market. While blocks of old housing had been destroyed to create the World Trade Center and Independence Plaza, a Mitchell-Lama housing project for middle-income New Yorkers, it remained a delightful urban desert. There were empty lots where adults could play volleyball, and children could bring shovels and plant sunflowers. The neighborhood was zoned for manufacturing and in the old lofts lived painters, sculptors, dancers, and poets, all allowed to live there as artists in residence. Without the garbage collection allotted to residential neighborhoods, we took our garbage, under safety of nightfall, to commercial dumpsters. We proudly wore shirts that said “Illegal Converter.”
The neighborhood had no supermarkets, shoe repair shops, nor pharmacies–no conveniences for its pioneering folk. The zoning board frowned on residential development. It was strictly a no-nonsense commercial and manufacturing area with a parade of trucks roaring down a then-100-foot-wide Greenwich Street to dock at the loading platforms in front of each building.
There were no schools for young children, and so a large, sun-filled, second-floor loft on Greenwich Street seemed to be the perfect location for starting an early childhood center. Friends and colleagues helped to sand the floors and renovate the 2,500-square-foot loft that had a sleeping platform for me. It cost $360 per month. We had 14-foot ceilings for hanging a climbing rope in the back gym area, and giant windows facing west–with no buildings between us and the Hudson River- so the children could chart the sun setting over New Jersey. In the first two years, as we grew from six to 20 students, we had unforgettable experiences of walking on the elevated West Side Highway and playing in what the kids called “the sand park”- just south of Independence Plaza–because when the winds came, it was a swirling sandy experience. Our children and thousands of others still play in the same area, now known as the Washington Market Park, which we helped to design.
Maria Montessori, the first woman to be allowed to enter medical school in Italy, had a lifelong dedication to finding and releasing the potential in each child. Her medical training that taught us to use all our senses was prescient in the understanding that we need to slow down for optimal learning. She believed that children need to be free to learn from their mistakes without judgment or blame. Not easy feats in our very stressed world.
From the beginning, I imagined the school with an underpinning of Montessori practice. I had a Master of Arts in Teaching, the study of which afforded me the ability to take as many courses as I wished in comparative literature and ceramics but lacked offerings in early childhood education. Clarity of purpose and understanding of development in all areas were needed in our school, and Montessori education was a beacon of knowledge and information on how children learn. Montessori training added the specifics to our larger desire to best create an environment into which children could come, without being interviewed or tested, to find joy, self-direction, and independence.
And so we created a classroom that did not have a front of the room with a teacher’s desk–an open classroom where children were free to explore and learn at their own pace, guided by superb teachers in an environment that was both welcoming and exciting. We did not need to ask woodworkers to make our children’s furniture as Dr. Montessori had done before us. We, like all early childhood centers since her time, benefited from her wisdom in having available to us just-the right-size tables and chairs, allowing kids to sit comfortably and focus on their work without feeling “too little.”
Our school was extraordinary in its happiness and commitment from parents, and yet while our loft was a blissful space, we were faced with outside stressors: the landlord promised a Certificate of Occupancy for the building, but it never materialized. We moved twice more, still looking for a legal home. The NYC Department of Health, Day Care Division, was a supportive and flexible agency that allowed us to exist without the necessary legalization of the building or meeting neighborhood zoning requirements (schools could only be located in residential or commercial zones, not a manufacturing zone). Washington Market School became known as a home for young children, a Casa de Bambini in Montessori’s words.
In 1978, I was appointed to Community Planning Board 1 for Lower Manhattan, with a goal of better understanding zoning and helping legalize our school. Our guardian angel, Council Member Miriam Friedlander, helped us move into Independence Plaza, a commercial zone. We then were able to file with the NY State Department of Education and become a not-for-profit school with a charter through 8th grade. Several moves later, in 1988 we found a sweet home for our mother ship at 55 Hudson Street. Years passed and we expanded to 134 Duane Street, allowing our youngest children to start and flourish, while still in diapers, in a more intimate setting.
About 15 years ago, our school added to its program innovations created by parents and educators in Reggio Emilia, Italy. (Another story is that the Italian view on childhood and their appreciation of the individual’s thinking, along with an inspiring sense of aesthetics, produced both of our educational methods). We believe that children learn best when they explore and take responsibility for their own learning. While we know this from our roots in Montessori training, we still became excited that the honoring of each child for their own spirit and curiosity could be enhanced by the style of learning that was being set forth in Reggio Emilia.
Our Hudson Street site was designed by a group of architect parents who appreciated that teachers and children would benefit from the openness of classrooms where they would be exposed to each other both in sight and sound–a physical plant where input and questioning from others created a feeling of innovation-which would encourage the creation of new curriculum ideas and a general sense of warm sharing. We already understood that the environment was key to learning and made sure that each class’s world was set up daily to prepare for our curious students. We were now learning more about how the possibilities of “found” materials to augment Montessori materials made wonderful sense in opening up daily questions and in our new method’s word, “provocations.” We learned that documenting their questions and wonderings allowed the group to benefit along with the individual.
Early childhood educators are aware that children learn through relationships, and we always loved watching our children learn from one another. We came to appreciate that while Dr. Montessori’s timeless materials are wise and carefully constructed for unique skills and connections, they were not designed for sharing. Combining the visions of Reggio Emilia and Montessori enhanced our understanding of how children learn: Why do they make the choices they do? Do they prefer working alone, or with another friend or a teacher? Is there an area in the room they find preferable, and why? We always asked, “If a child chooses blocks each day without fail, is that child going to be an architect or perhaps are they avoiding what the rest of the room has to offer?” We pondered and were delighted to observe how their personalities were formed and enhanced by their choices, and continually discussed how vital our early childhood program was in enhancing children’s development through the offering of many carefully created choices throughout the day.
People often ask me what has changed over the years and what has stayed the same. Through the years, we dealt with some major crises. The first day of the fall term in 2001 was September 11th, and we saw and heard the first plane flying low over our heads, on its path to the World Trade Center, as we greeted children and parents. And, of course, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic continues to challenge us in ways we never could have imagined. Aside from these extraordinary crises, there have also been significant but steady changes to the neighborhood that was Washington Market- now known as Tribeca, with superb public schools, beautiful residential lofts and apartments, and terrific restaurants and amenities.
Despite these seismic changes and epic challenges, the school has remained innovative even as it has grown larger. The intentions and joy of a tiny educational start-up in my loft continue to be an integral part of the school’s ethos today. When we started, the children worked with Montessori beads and the iconic pink tower, and created sculptures out of the found junk that was easily available in our manufacturing neighborhood. Half a century later, still working with these materials and with other recycled supplies sent in by parents (a never-ending stock of wine corks), we still believe that each day is a new day for us.
Our families gain from each of the pioneers who came to develop the original community in the 1970s and 80s. And our families also gain from the brilliant woman Maria Montessori, who still inspires us with the art of carefully listening and observing. We benefit from the iconoclastic doctor and teacher who believed that emotions have a place in the classroom. Indeed, joy in learning and passionate curiosity are the foundations of why our children have loved school for 46 years. And I remain confident that our school will continue to learn and enhance our ability to impart wisdom to our children for the next half-century, and beyond.
We are here together at the end of January 2022, 22 1/2 months after we each became aware of a pandemic approaching. We had no idea of what it ...
Dear Washington Market Community,
As I wrote recently, we continue to be absorbed with news of Covid. This week’s letter will have news ...