In 1907, Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori opened her first classroom, Casa dei Bambini, focused on the constructivist learning model. In 2006, LaDene Conroy, a 33-year educator, then serving as principal of Malcolm C. Hursey Elementary School, was tapped to spearhead the Montessori movement in Charleston. Had their worlds collided, the two would have been the Thelma and Louise of child-centered education.
As Montessori Specialist for Development, Support and Expansion for the Charleston County School District, LaDene serves as a resource for teachers, advocate for parents and voice of the Montessori way of life.
Speaking with LaDene, it is immediately understood that Montessori is more than basic lesson plans. Her eyes light up with a passion as she describes the “utopia in the classroom,” but her voice remains soothing and intentional. It is the perfect complement to her physical form, a tall frame sporting a “Life is Good” t-shirt with dangling peace sign earrings that rest in a wild mane of chestnut coils.
She is the self-described “zealot” for a movement that has taken CCSD by storm. Since she began, the program has doubled the number of schools, having representation now equitably distributed in all four zones. Currently, 1,200 children are learning under the Montessori model and nearly 700 are on the waiting list.
As she is quick to point out though, “it is the synergy and conviction of many, and all levels, that allows this reform and growth within our educational environment.”
The educational environment is quite different in the Montessori world. Softly playing classical music serves as the backdrop to students working in parallel. Some move freely around primary-colored mats, others collaborate, but each at different stages of uninterrupted work time. The graceful ballet is a well-choreographed lesson in self-teaching and independence.
To quote Maria Montessori, “the greatest sign of success for a teacher...is to be able to say, 'the children are now working as if I did not exist.’” While this may be true, we credit LaDene Conroy with tirelessly advocating to make the educational experience possible.
Words by: Meredith H. Siemens
Photographer: Mark Stetler