Tucked away in the northwest quadrant of Gainesville, on 39th Avenue, Millhopper Montessori School quietly helps students grow and mature, both in knowledge and social skills. Spanning pre-k through eighth grade, with nine classrooms, 35 staff members and more than 200 students, the school thrives on nourishing young minds and forging strong relationships between teachers and students. In this warm, welcoming environment, they not only learn reading, writing and arithmetic, but how to rely on and help one another.
“Everything we do here is interwoven, and there’s a sense of family, a sense of community in all that we do,” said Christina Miller, founder and director of Millhopper Montessori, which is accredited by the Florida Council of Independent Schools and the Florida Kindergarten Council.
Since its inception in 1977, this unique approach has established Millhopper Montessori as a bulwark in local children’s education—an institution worthy of parental confidence. Miller, who holds a bachelor’s in elementary education, a master’s in curriculum design and a Montessori teaching certificate in ages early childhood through middle school, takes pride in the school’s history in the community.
“There’s a lineage and legacy here,” Miller said. “We have had the opportunity to impact so many lives, and I am thrilled that we have guided so many students from pre-k up through their middle school years.”
The efficacy of the Millhopper education is readily apparent in students like Manny de la Puerta. Now a sophomore at Eastside High School, he first attended Millhopper at age three, spending the next 11 years there. At Eastside, he is in the college prep International Baccalaureate program. His mother, Irma Alvarez, firmly believes that both Millhopper’s brand of education, and the atmosphere in which it was presented, were instrumental in her son’s success.
“He transitioned perfectly,” Alvarez said. “I think it had to do with the fact that (Millhopper) graduates students who have a strong sense of self.” That sense of self is fostered in all aspects of the school, but is particularly noticeable in the classroom.
“The classrooms are small, so all of the children get to know each other,” Alvarez, whose daughter Cristina, 12, still attends Millhopper, said, “and now it’s become where the older children and the younger children are interacting, and that’s another part that I really love.”
Alvarez described how fifth graders, who do the morning safety patrol, make special effort to learn the younger children’s names. “So when they get out of their mommies or daddies cars, they greet him, ‘Hello Jude’ or ‘Hello Robert,’ and they take him by the hand and bring him to the back to where their classroom is,” she said.
“(Millhopper) Montessori more than met—and exceeded—any expectations that I had,” Alvarez said. She referred to it as a “clean, well kept, safe place,” which promotes children’s self-awareness and personal decision making skills, while offering them opportunities to learn from their mistakes.
Elizabeth Falls, a Millhopper teacher establishing this environment, instructs the pre-k to kindergarten class, where students range in age from 4-to-6-years-old. Falls, who’s logged 14 years at the school, said she refers to her classroom as a family—one in addition to their family at home. A large percentage of her students, she explained, have no siblings. For them, going to school is more than an academic endeavor; it’s a chance to learn to interact properly with their peers.
“We always say, ‘We’re a family; so we’re going to treat the environment and all our friends like family,’” Falls said. She added that this environment helps children build useful social skills, and it encourages students to treat the classroom materials with respect, as if they were their own.
Richard Aslanian, another venerable Millhopper veteran—he’s been there 16 years—is responsible for the second and third grade. He said that he appreciates the camaraderie amongst the teachers. “It’s amazing how many things come up throughout the course of the year where teachers just pitch in to help each other,” he said.
In the classroom, Aslanian said the concept that “each child can help another child” is encouraged, “so it really kind of brings everything together.” Using the four houses from the Harry Potter novels—Godric Gryffindor, Salazar Slytherin, Rowena Ravenclaw and Helga Hufflepuff—Aslanian separates the students into groups where they learn team work and cooperation, as well as perform projects.
It’s creativity like that which draws parents to Millhopper, which is affiliated with the American Montessori Society. Several years ago, Trish Petty found Millhopper while looking to enroll her children in kindergarten and preschool. She visited several schools, but none quite held the same appeal as Millhopper. Like Alvarez, she appreciated its cleanliness, but, in particular, she was drawn to the level of responsibility it placed upon the children—“being responsible for your own environment,” she said. Her children, Ashley, 13, and Austin, 11, soon enrolled, and the mother of two has had nothing but a positive experience. “It’s been really, really good for us,” Petty said.
She was particularly pleased with the teachers’ support of her children. “They view the students as a complete package and not as a student who just has to make grades,” she said. As an example, Petty, who is also the school’s art teacher, for first through eighth grade, described how the middle school instructors teach organizational skills. “By the time (the students) leave and go on to high school, they are very, very organized,” Petty said.
While the older children learn responsibility and independence, the beginners class—2-to-4-year-olds— rely on sight and sound for comprehension and understanding. “My 2-year-olds can all say the names of the continents, because we teach it to them in a song, and they have materials that show them,” said Crystal Sorrow, lead teacher for the early childhood/beginners class. “The average child may not learn that until they are eight or nine.”
In her class, social skills are also stressed, allowing the young children to become comfortable interacting with one another—sharing, working together. “We start the year with what Montessori calls, ‘Grace and Courtesy’—how to be nice to your friends, how to push in your chair, how to eat with nice manners and those sort of things,” Sorrow said.
Also, she spoke of kindergarten students coming to her class and performing “emerging reading,”—where children just learning to read choose a book and present it to the class. “My children are a very receptive audience,” Sorrow said.
With an equally strong commitment to education, Sherilyn Farris strives to ensure older students have a smooth transition into middle school. “We really work on interpersonal relationships,” said Farris, lead middle school teacher. Each year they spend three days at the YMCA’s Camp McConnell in Micanopy, where they perform team-building exercises and personal challenges. “That teaches them, as we like to call it, ‘a sense of community,’” Farris said, “as well as how to get along and cooperate with one another.”
“There’s not too many work environments where you are totally alone,” Farris said. “You’re either communicating with someone either through e-mail or in person, so learning these skills early on is really important.”
This approach to teaching—that a child’s education will impact both their immediate and distant future—is what Millhopper Montessori is all about. It creates stimulated, well-educated, fulfilled students— earning a ringing endorsement from their parents. “I really would recommend it; it’s been a great place,” Alvarez said.
By Matthew Beaton