University of Mary Offers Catholic Montessori Master’s in Education
Bismarck Diocese highlights child-motivated method.
BISMARCK, North Dakota — At Christ the King School in Mandan, North Dakota, by 2015, enrollment had dipped below 70 students — the lowest ever. Closing the K-6 school seemed inevitable.
But the next year saw a needed transition that has kept the school going strong ever since.
Today, the same school serves 200 children, with parents often putting their children’s names on the 100-plus waiting list years ahead of time. The dramatic turnaround came about through the school becoming a Catholic Montessori school.
The success has led to three other Catholic Montessori schools in the Bismarck Diocese: St. Bernard Catholic Indian Mission School on the Standing Rock Reservation, St. Joseph School, part of St. Joseph parish in Mandan that serves preschool and elementary students, and School of the Holy Family, also part of St. Joseph’s parish, which has grades seven to 12.
In response to this growing interest both locally and nationally, the University of Mary (UMary) in Bismarck has begun offering a Catholic Montessori master’s degree in education degree. And that spark from Christ the King has also spread to include a new religious order of sisters in Mandan, dedicated to serving in Catholic Montessori education.
The Montessori Method
It was more than 100 years ago that Maria Montessori (1870-1952), a Catholic educator and physician from Italy, developed a holistic approach that fosters self-motivated growth for children integrating all areas of learning — cognitive, emotional, social, physical and spiritual.
This method set off a movement that continues in Montessori schools in more than 110 countries and was foundational in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd faith-formation program. In its purest sense, Montessori learning integrates the Catholic faith just as Montessori intended.
According to the American Montessori Society, there are currently an estimated 22,000 Montessori programs, with nearly 4,000 of them in the U.S. Most are private schools, although public Montessori programs have doubled in the last 15 years to around 450.
Christ the King
Father Nick Schneider, former pastor of Christ the King, told the Register that when he was considering the switch, after observing the Way of the Shepherd Catholic Montessori School in Minnesota, he was sold.
“Dr. Montessori herself said it’s the children themselves that are the best advocate for this method,” he said. “By the end of the day, I was in tears at what I saw: the dignity and respect children showed for each other and the seamless way faith was woven into everything.”
He was impressed with the high level of work being done and how the children interacted.
“On the drive home, I thought that even if we didn’t need to make a change, I would really want to give this a shot.”
The school board agreed to the transition and offered to pay for Montessori certification for teachers who chose to stay. It requires a bachelor’s degree — not necessarily in education — and takes one to two years to complete.
The school began at the lower grades with what Montessori terms the “Children’s House” for ages 3 to 6. One mother, who saw her younger child loving school and able to do her older brother’s homework that he was struggling with, asked Father Schneider, “Can we make the whole school Montessori now?”
It took three years to complete the transition to include the two upper-elementary rooms, which are fourth through sixth grade, where Father Schneider is a lead teacher; he will also be teaching one of the Montessori classes at University of Mary for the Montessori program. In addition, he is director of worship at the Church of St. Vincent DePaul (Crown Butte).
The Montessori method, he explained, “considers individual student needs and abilities and how to create the least obstacles to excitement in the classroom.”
Teachers are called “guides,” since learning is child-motivated and can include things like planting, building, baking, embroidery and art.
“Dr. Montessori would say the only object big enough to meet a child’s reasoning and creative mind is the entire universe,” Father Schneider said. “So we introduce every kind of study that appeals to their mind, beginning with creation, asking: ‘How is it that God without hands creates everything that is?’”
Science, he explained, begins with God putting laws into things and everything that exists obeys those laws, such as with the three states of matter: gas, liquid and solid.
“Geology, hydrology, the atmosphere, all the work that matter does … all of those laws are in harmony and point to God,” he said.
Subjects are interwoven with religion. “Dr. Montessori had a keen understanding of the child’s relationship with God and with the Church,” Father Schneider said.
“She noticed children capable of an interior life that was unexpected by adults.”
A Religious Order
The school receives assistance from a new religious order dedicated to Montessori education. Servants of the Children of Light, a public association of the Christian faithful for women, was established in October 2020 by Bishop David Kagan with Sister Chiara Therese. She had been with an order in Europe that dissolved, so she returned home to Bismarck.
“I was helping at the Montessori school, and the Lord made it clear to begin an order dedicated to Catholic Montessori education,” she said. Only later did she and Father Schneider, independent of one another, discover Maria Montessori had written of her desire for a religious order to continue the work. Sister Chiara explained, “We are here to help draw out the ‘hidden potencies’ in the child; to honor and respect the workings of Christ in the soul of the child so that he may be loved and respected for who he is and who he will become.”
Three More Schools Adapt
The success at Christ the King inspired Father Josh Waltz, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Mandan, as school enrollment hovered around just 50 pupils.
They began in 2019 with the Children’s House. Only 40% of the students stayed, but there are now 152 students enrolled for the fall. The junior high opened in 2021, with the high school following in 2022.
“One of the cool things is that we kept every kid from grade school to high school and a couple of families have come back,” Father Waltz said.
There are no phones allowed at school. Students interested in sports can co-op with the local public school or St. Mary’s High School in Bismarck.
“There is a lot more communication and interaction between kids and teachers,” Father Waltz said. “Someone from DPI [Department of Public Instruction] who came to do an assessment said, ‘Wow, the kids really communicate. You don’t see that anymore.’”
“We don’t have a school; we have a family,” Father Waltz emphasized, noting that donations and volunteers have been vital to the school’s transformation. “To make this transition, it’s a ton of work, and it’s not going to be done in a year, but it’s worth it.”
Msgr. Chad Gion, pastor of the Catholic Indian Mission in Fort Yates, began to transition St. Bernard’s school in 2019, with 3- to 5-year-olds, and in 2021 added the 6- to 9-year-olds. According to Sandy Gallagher, the school’s business manager, their goal for the K-8 school, which has 30 students, is to provide certification for the next two levels over the next three to five years. “The children at St. Bernard Mission School come to us with a variety of needs and backgrounds,” Gallagher explained.
“Montessori allows us to meet the children where they are and allows the children to move in a positive direction at a level of learning that maintains their interest and promotes self-motivation and self-discipline. They are excited to come to school. Just this last year we had children that were outside for recess ask to come back inside and do schoolwork.”
The University of Mary in Bismarck, in response to the growing demand for Montessori teachers throughout the U.S. and locally, has launched a Catholic Montessori Master’s in Education degree beginning this fall.
Mike Taylor, the director of Catholic studies for graduate education, described the new venture as being consistent with the university’s Benedictine mission to serve.
“We try to engage this world,” he said. “We saw a need of Catholic schools and school systems to have courses to complement the more traditional master’s in Catholic education. Montessori has been on our radar for a while, as we realized that Catholic schools are turning to Montessori to grow their enrollment.”
Brenda Tufte, associate dean of the Liffrig Family School of Education and Behavioral Sciences at UMary, explained that the degree accepts prior credits already earned in national Montessori certification.
“Part of the degree involves research so students will be doing research into Montessori,” she said. “Maria Montessori herself was a physician, and she paid attention and documented a lot of her observations. These scholars have the opportunity to contribute to the knowledge and understanding and have evidence to better understand why Montessori is working so beautifully.”
Cassandra Baker is a certified guide at Christ the King and the first student enrolled in the program.
As a former traditional teacher, she said it took a while to adjust to guiding as opposed to teaching a child to learn.
“I have to figure out what the child is trying to tell me,” Baker said.
“With the Catholic Montessori method, there is great depth to working with children and understanding that it’s Christ within the child. That’s really beautiful.”
By getting a master’s degree in Montessori Catholic education, Baker said she hopes to further promote Montessori within Catholic education and help families incorporate the methods at home.
“That’s my passion,” she said, “to help parents bring Montessori into their family.”
“It would be amazing to eventually have a Catholic Montessori training here,” she added.
“But this is a good first step.”