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School can trace its roots to the West Hills Learning Center in Multnomah Village in 1950

CONNECTION PHOTOS BY BILL GALLAGHER - West Hills Montessori Program Director Delila Olsson and music teacher Erik Carlson preside at the celebration of the school's 50th anniversary.Multnomah Village in 1968 was riding another downturn in the economy when Pat Hickox and her daughter, Nancy Hildick, moved about a mile from Capitol Highway to start a new school on Southwest Vermont Street just west of Gabriel Park.

West Hills Montessori opened its doors to families looking for alternatives to public education in September 1968. On the 50th day of the school's 50th year this November, the school's student body gathered for songs a few feet from where Hickox and Hidick broke ground for their vision half a century ago.

Pat Hickox had started West Hills Learning Center on Capitol Highway in 1950. There weren't a lot of options at the time for families seeking child care and pre-school education, she says. With her daughter, she brought the Montessori methods to Southwest Portland, establishing one of the first two Montessori schools in this area.  There are now two dozen, including a second West Hills Montessori in Lake Oswego.

In the beginning on Southwest Vermont, there was one classroom of 25 primary students on the site of what had been a church. Current enrollment in the toddler (15 months to 3 years), primary (ages 3 to 6) and elementary (ages 6 to 12) programs is just under 300, according to Delila Olsson, program director for the school.

What Doctor Maria Montessori started in 1907 in Italy by working with children in poverty has been in the news lately. The richest man in the world, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos has pledged $2 billion to set up a network of preschools in low-income communities inspired by the Montessori approach. Bezos himself attended a Montessori preschool in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Olsson describes the Montessori method as "an individualized approach to working with children.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Pat Hickox (left) and her daughter Nancy Hildick broke ground on Southwest Vermont St. in 1968 for what is now one of Portland's oldest Montessori schools. "Doctor Montessori was a scientist who studied how children learn and then developed materials based on what would draw children in and engage what she called their natural tendencies for learning," she explains.

One of the biggest differences between Montessori and traditional public education, says Olsson, is that "Doctor Montessori believed children learn best in multi-age groupings." Unlike a class room filled with students of roughly the same age, "Montessori experiences are always multi-age and multi-year. Children will spend several years in one classroom, so they have a rich experience socially and emotionally."

There's more independent learning for students than some parents are used to, Olsson says.

"We believe that Montessori works well for most students, though it isn't for every family," she says. "The emphasis in Montessori is very much upon indivuality rather than conformity. So we're looking for parents that support their child in discovering their own path of learning. With that you get a really self-confident learner."

Along with that independence comes responsibility. Primary students prepare their own meals. Elementary students plan field trips.

West Hills Montessori tuition is pretty much in line with other local Montessori

schools, raging from $8,200 to $11,100, depending on grade level and the hours of classes.

Olsson says Oregon is known "for one of the richest Montessori traditions in the country." That's largely because of Hildick, she says, who also established a highly-regarded center for Montessori teacher training in Portland.

For more information about the school, visit westhills-montessori.com.

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