By David A. F. Sweet
When Paula Lillard lived in Cincinnati raising four young children, friends gave her a biography of Maria Montessori, an Italian doctor who championed educational theories little known in the United States. As she read the book, Lillard was skeptical of Montessori’s methods.
“I thought it all sounded too ideal,” she explained. “I thought, ‘Children are not like this.’”
Still, she volunteered to be an unpaid assistant for a new Montessori program for 3-to-5-year-olds at the Cincinnati Country Day School. And what she witnessed amazed her.
“I had no idea they could behave as well as they behaved,” Lillard said. “I was fascinated with the teacher, a Jewish German refugee from World War II named Hilda. It was just amazing to see her recognize in each child what would help them to form within themselves the needed character traits. She was an incredible observer of children, and always treated them with dignity and respect.”
Today, Lillard – who started Forest Bluff Montessori School in Lake Bluff in 1982 after finishing her Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) training in Milwaukee — is the foremost authority on Montessori education in the United States and is well known around the world. As she sat in a lawn chair on a summer afternoon at her Lake Forest home with geese resting nearby, stables to her right and a pond in the distance, she shared her 60-year journey dedicated to the embrace and spread of Montessori’s revolutionary view of how children should be educated.
Traditionalists who believe in school desks and memorization of facts greet Montessori with disbelief. No grades, little homework, no sports teams? Nine-year-old students in the classroom with 12-year-olds? Students making lunch at home and bringing it to school?
“It’s so deep, which is one reason people have so much trouble with it,” Lillard said. “By being a medical doctor and a scientist, Montessori observed children at a deep level. She created an environment that brought out the best in their behavior and their intellect. We know they start with curiosity; you need an environment to encourage that.”
In the classroom, children as young as 18 months engage with materials, such as knives to cut vegetables. Math is integrated into their world instead of appearing as numbers on paper Teachers focus on students’ intellect and their human spirit, not just their academic work. Seventh and eighth graders take trips – including one involving dogsledding in Minnesota – where they rather than teachers figure out food, travel and other arrangements before camping out for 10 days in the cold.
The result? Students develop important lifelong traits, including self-determination, focus, a love of learning, creativity and confidence. When alumni return to Forest Bluff to share their stories with students and parents, they are poised and well-spoken. A number become entrepreneurs.
“Choice is a foundation of the Montessori education,” Lillard said. “They’re in charge of their own selves. It gives a strong sense of who they are.”
Opened 40 years ago in rented space in the now-demolished East School in Lake Bluff, Forest Bluff welcomed about 15 3- and 4-year-olds. It expanded quickly through word of mouth. Parents as far away as Barrington drove to Lake Bluff to drop off their children.
“We never made an effort to consciously go out and seek people,” Lillard said. “My intent was to serve children and families who were interested in Montessori.”
In 1989, the school opened its own building just west of the Lake Bluff train station. As the school grew and the years passed, the biggest challenge arrived during the Great Recession in 2008.
“We had a couple of years then when we couldn’t balance our budget,” said Lillard. “I always believed you don’t spend money you don’t have in a non-profit, so we reduced our expenses.”
Lillard – who graduated from Smith College with a degree in education — is still distressed by one move recommended by the AMI at that time which has since been reversed; closing one of the three primary classes for ages 3-6.
“I knew that was a mistake to load up on two classes,” she said.
Ironically for a school that had not allowed students to use technology until the pandemic, Lillard said people now mainly find out about the school via the Internet, often through its website. Parents at the 150-student school come from more than two dozen countries, including Argentina, India and Ukraine.
At 90, Lillard still attends staff meetings and talks with the teachers, many of whom have tremendous longevity. Haley Tate, for example, is in her 39th year teaching 18 months to 3 year olds. Two of Lillard’s daughters, Lynn Jessen and Paula Preschlack – who has written a book on Montessori education slated to come out next year — have taught at the school, along with her granddaughter, Margaret Kelly (all three remain heavily involved with the school since leaving the classroom). Lillard herself taught until she was 74.
“Those were certainly my best years,” she said. “For a long time, I couldn’t talk about them because they made me sad.
“When you enter a Montessori environment, you leave the world behind you. You’re surrounded by the mystery of how human beings will respond to their world. I never looked at the clock. How many people can say that?”
Unsung Gems columnist David Sweet is the author of Three Seconds in Munich. He can be reached at email@example.com.