Many Alaskans baby boomers experienced a remarkable 50-year Anchorage private education option that I was proud to have attempted to save from bankruptcy. I learned important lessons from this effort.
Tom Thumb was the first Montessori School in Anchorage (TTMS). In its prime, this was the largest private Montessori school in the United States–with nearly 600 students being served at five locations here, plus two locations in Boise, Idaho. But by 2006 Tom Thumb was dead.
Today the ghosts of those schools are roaming at several day-care centers around Anchorage–which are former affiliates of TTMS–but don’t tell the kids.
My experience with TTMS goes back to when I had a publishing and public relations company in the late 1970s and did business with Margaret Green, the owner and “Directress” of TTMS. She ran the school enterprise with an iron fist in a velvet glove. She died at age 93 in 2013.
I so admired her to the end.
Returning from Juneau to Anchorage in 2003 with a Master’s Degree in Education and a Type A teaching certificate, I was looking for the right career option, substituting in the Anchorage School District and tutoring at Sylvan Learning Systems. Kids doing poorly at ASD can be enrolled at Sylvan and pretty much guarantee high school graduation. It might take a second mortgage on the family home, but attendance in the Sylvan system meant success.
Poor kids get a GED.
It didn’t take long in my “old Anchorage stomping grounds” before I noticed the condition of the schools Mrs. Green and her hard-working husband Harold had built; I was shocked at how dilapidated they were! The Greens had originally come to Alaska in 1946 and homesteaded in Eagle River to be, in Mr. Green’s words: “run out by bears.” He was a New York Yankees fan and an entrepreneur. Among the Green’s several successful endeavors were Harold’s Grocery, Harold’s Hardware, Alaskan Electronics, Silver Scissors, and Gambell Street Business College.
When I talked to them about what had happened to their once thriving schools during my absence, they told of passing on their cherished enterprise to a son and watching it go into immediate and prolonged decline.
Herold Jr. had never been actively involved in the schools and I don’t know why they bequeathed it to him.
My challenge following several meetings: Could the enterprise be saved from imminent disaster at this late stage? Could it be returned to its Montessori roots?
The son, my age and a former East High School chum, was a John Marshall Law School graduate, attorney, and Realtor, in the middle of a divorce. It was ugly. Everything was on the line—the schools, the real estate, visitation of the children, all the assets. Mr. and Mrs. Green were in distress, and I entered into a written agreement with them to take over and maintain the schools until the court made a decision about who gets what.
50 years in business and this is what it had come to.
Harold Jr. was okay with me taking over; I was named Superintendent, and I graduated the last class from this school, which included the Green’s grandson.
For background: I never entered the teaching profession at midlife to make a killing financially. I had already worked nine years in Juneau for NEA-Alaska, the largest union of teachers, and I aspired to reach students outside of unionized education factories. I always believed forcing public employees to be members of a public sector union was wrong. This issue–whether public employees can be forced to be members of a union–is being considered presently by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Janus v. AFSCME. If teachers were not required to be members, unions would have to earn membership, and I believe public education would be better without union protections for mediocrity. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janus_v_AFSCME
Further, I aspired to reach students who needed a good male role model and hoped to approach the training of children and youth objectively. Having never had kids of my own I sought to learn what makes a good teacher from those who have proven themselves to be good teachers, such as my hero Jaime Escalante, the California Teacher about whom the movie “Stand and Deliver” was made. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaime_Escalante
The Montessori Method
Margaret Green was a pioneer of the Montessori Method in Alaska beginning in 1956, just as Maria Montessori herself had been a pioneer of the education of children to create the Montessori Method in Italy at the turn of the century. Being the first woman to graduate from the University of Rome, “Ms. Montessori became Italy’s first female physician in 1896. Over the next few years she became involved with the condition of those who were called “defective” children, first as their doctor and then as an activist who believed the deprived environment of the children was in part responsible for their condition.
“Dr. Montessori devised systems for teaching children who had been rejected by the public schools as “idiots,” and as she was able to make those “unteachable” children capable of passing the same exams given to public school children, the entire nation took notice,” according to a book written by Mrs. Green. To address this situation required an innovative approach to meeting the basic needs of children while elevating their cognitive pursuits. Some couldn’t even talk, but they had to learn how to communicate and function in society.
Mrs. Green received instruction in the Montessori Method in London, from the son of Dr. Montessori. She replicated the method as closely as possible to the founder’s intent. Her comprehensive book is entitled: “How To Make Sure Your Child Grows Up To Be A Winner The Creative Montessori Way.”
In explaining the philosophy of Montessori, Mrs. Green states: “Maria Montessori’s philosophy is based on the premise that children desire to learn from and to imitate adults. In fact, this very desire is often the cause of many conflicts between adults and children. How often are children told to look and not touch but are expected to understand such properties of matter as delicacy or durability? It’s all right to drop the plastic catchup bottle, but not Aunt Faye’s porcelain cup. Children are forbidden to pour their own juice because of the uncertainty of a spill, but if they never practice, how will they learn? Through the use of prepared environment, 3 to 5 year olds are able to practice practical life skills which enable them to become confident, secure and independent learners.”
Prepared Environment is a cornerstone of the Montessori Method.
Further, Mrs. Green’s self-published book provides an insightful overview of Montessori, with Part I explanations of the philosophy and a description of the adult’s role in the Montessori Classroom: “…discipline must come through liberty. (meaning) Small children have an innate dignity of their own which is often unknowingly trampled upon by the adults in their lives who are just trying to be helpful,” to How to begin a Montessori Class and Safety Concepts in the Classroom. Her learning process is formal and structured so children take incremental learning seriously.
Part II of Mrs. Green’s book includes curriculum on Practical Life aspects of Montessori: Lesson plans for Care of the Person, Care of the Environment, Sorting and Matching, Food Preparation, Grace and Courtesy, and Control of Movement.
Part III Sensorial Material includes lesson examples in Visual, Tactile, Auditory, Smell, and Taste.
Part IV Language Arts and Writing details innovations such as making six-inch letters of the alphabet cut from sandpaper to give a tactile component to learning for little fingers.
Part V Math and Exercises in More Complex Operations uses cubes and beads and group games to build basic understanding at a primary level in the brain. Through familiarization of concepts of math without onerous drills, the Montessori Method provides a foundation for higher level understanding of math.
Part VI Science examines botany through types of seeds and leaves to examination of plant cells through a microscope. Physics are explored by establishing the difference between magnetic vs. nonmagnetic through the making of a compass. Zoology examines living vs. nonliving, plant or animal and vertebrate or invertebrate.
Part VII History & Time introduces the concept of time using a “Montessori Clock” manipulative. Another lesson examines the different parts of a flag in a matching game with various countries on a map. This provides a holistic overview of time relative to place.
Part VIII Creative Arts including Music and Art are instrumental to a Montessori school day. Mrs. Green was a graduate of Julliard School of Music in New York, and played piano at a very high level. She recommends a number of activities: “During the period under five, there is a real sense being formed in the inner being of the child. The significance of the ability to be able to match one form to another can be appreciated as the child works with the sensorial materials. The child needs to be given the possibility of observation so that as he looks around his environment he can heighten his appreciation of form,” she wrote.
Many of these concepts originally introduced by Dr. Montessori are now commonplace in all of our amalgamated education system schools, where anything dreamed up is thrown against the wall to see what will stick. We have now seen generations of fads in educational theory which mostly distract from the basics of the Reading, Writing, Math, History and Life Skills necessary to be successful in modern society. Dr. Montessori likely would have rejected the unstructured anything-goes approach of many schools today in favor of her highly structured systems, teaching specific skills in a pedagogically sound manner.
During the 1930s certain elites introduced their version of the Montessori Method in the United States. In response, Dr. Montessori came over from Europe, saw how her system was being bastardized, and put an end to it here with threats of lawsuits. Our American public education institutions had already embraced the heresy of John Dewey–a professed Socialist–whose theories have prevailed and brought our schools to where they are today, including nationalized Common Core curriculum.
The Hope of Tom Thumb
Taking over an enterprise in the condition of TTMS with aspirations of bringing it back to its previous level of excellence was a challenge I relished. Five schools, in four locations with the headquarters in Spenard, a midtown school on Fairbanks Street, a school on Boniface Parkway, and two at O’Malley Rd and Lake Otis Pkwy. I felt a profound sense of responsibility to those parents who entrusted their precious children to our care and enlightenment. Everywhere I looked in the classrooms and play areas of TTMS I saw Mrs. Green’s firm but gentle inspired hands reinforced by Mr. Green’s ability to make things work.
But practically I saw another dynamic at play; I was the interloper in a system run from the central office that was taking in money but declining in product quality and long-term sustainability. Further, I was frankly shocked after meeting with the Green’s long-time accountant at what the enterprise revenues had been upon handing the enterprise over to Harold Jr. It had needed a champion, someone who could fight for its viability, but now it was squeaking by and in need of serious upgrades to facilities.
The other thing faced during this time was regulatory oversight by the Municipality of Anchorage, under AMC 16.5.010-.500 Child Care and Educational Facilities—Centers and Homes. The department has the power to investigate anything and everything without notice. They might be responding to a complaint, or they might just feel like today was a good day to visit TTMS. On one occasion investigators showed up at the O’Malley school as I was wearing a tool belt and helping with renovations. I had to drop everything to accommodate inquiries.
Given the pages of requirements, timeframes, and expectations, the possibility of running a viable private school is greatly diminished under the code, rather favoring church or other government-sponsored non-profit corporations. The regulations read, in part: “The department recognizes the responsibility of parents to select and monitor caregivers for their children in order to ensure a reasonably safe and developmentally appropriate childcare environment. The licensing standards and procedures in this chapter are intended to reduce predictable risk of harm to children and to provide support services to those providing child care.”
I ask you: Are parents responsible or not?
Since anybody can be a parent, the need to provide government oversight of child care facilities seems reasonable. But at what point does government intrusion into a business enterprise simply because it deals with children become overkill? I was a certified teacher and all of our facilities were licensed. Our teachers were licensed and trained. Parents chose to bring their children to our facilities and we provided educational services as well as daycare. Shouldn’t that be enough?
Mrs. Green fought what she felt was overregulation of her schools by the Municipality of Anchorage. A 1990 story in the Anchorage Daily News describes the next round of an ongoing saga with the sensationalized headline: “Tom Thumb Fights Again.” Enrollment at that time was listed as 320. The writer, Dusty Rhodes described the situation thus: “Whenever any agency the Alaska State Board of Education, the state Department of Education, the Anchorage borough or the municipality has attempted to add regulations that would increase her costs, Green has fought to keep her schools operating just as she established them. And every time despite the fact that the state has received significant complaints about incidents at her schools (see accompanying story) Green won.” http://thepixeldust.com/thepixeldust.com/tomthumbmain.html
I would argue that Mrs. Green was fighting increased costs to parents because that is who ultimately pays for childcare if she has to raise rates to accommodate government requirements. TTMS rates were stable, the program was well established, and the Muni had an obligation to help this school stay in business to serve those who chose to have their children there.
Also from that story: “Margaret Green isn’t against child care. She isn’t against the proposed ordinance and its new regulations, either except for the one clause that would require her and her schools to meet municipal licensing requirements. Though there is nothing in the proposed regulations dictating educational philosophy or content, she says the regulations would force her schools to become merely daycare centers.”
Ultimately what Mrs. Green feared is exactly what happened to TTMS–AFTER she was no longer able to fight the fight for separation of school and day care programs. Any child care center can now incorporate parts of the Montessori Method and call itself a Montessori School, however.
The Green Legacy
One of my long-term goals during my time as Superintendent of TTMS was to establish a Margaret Green Montessori Training Program at the O’Malley property. I am sorry that when the court settled Harold Jr’s. divorce he decided to turn any working schools into day-care centers with the professed hope of selling the properties.
In retrospect, I marvel at how amazing is it that Alaska was the point where Montessori was reintroduced by TTMS and prospered for so long. I took on the challenge of rehabilitation of TTMS with enthusiasm; we began regular training for teachers at all of the five schools, with Mrs. Green actively participating! I began refurbishing classrooms and myself building shelves for managing the Montessori materials in the fashion they were to be dealt with in the curriculum.
A bittersweet labor of love for one year.
Donn Liston first went to Juneau as a legislative aide in 1983 and remained there 20 years. After becoming certified as a classroom teacher in 2003 he and his wife returned to Anchorage where he taught primarily Adult Basic Education until 2017 when he accepted a position as staff to the representative from Eagle River. This column is intended to be instructional and provide insight into how our state government is run through the eyes of someone who has watched it from various perches over decades. To reach Donn, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.