I drove my motorbike up and down the dusty road to La Ciénega (The Swamp), one of the poorer neighborhoods in Cabarete, in search of a Montessori school called 3 Mariposas, or 3 Butterflies. But all I could find were houses guarded by cinder-block walls and apartment buildings with sun-faded laundry hanging from derelict balconies. I couldn’t see anything that looked remotely like a school.
But after a few more laps of the same road and some help from Dominican passers-by, I realized what I thought was someone’s home was actually a primary school in a converted house. I just couldn’t see the yard full of toys and the butterflies painted on the walls from the road.
Once inside the walls surrounding 3 Mariposas, I found myself in an inviting and colorful space full of love and inspiration. Located in the heart of a Dominican/Haitian community, whose families make an average income of $2,000 a year, this school offers free tuition to 75% of its student body. Which is a huge relief to the small number of parents whose kids attend 3 Mariposas; especially since formal education for children under age 8 and over age 13 is rare in the D.R.
Yet there’s this little Montessori school for kids aged 0-7 in the middle of a swamp, offering free education with qualified teachers to Dominicans and Haitians who can barely afford to feed their family, let alone invest in education. And it’s full of smiling kids hard at work learning shapes, colors, math, reading, writing and more, in both Spanish and English.
And since Ryan and I are teachers who built our own teacher training school and English language school in New York City, we were interested in meeting 3 Mariposas’ American founder, Sarah Ross, and learning more about the school because, (1) we believe in the power of education, and (2) we have a policy of donating money each year to an educational cause.
Sarah welcomed me into her school warmly and, despite her perpetually full schedule, gave me a full tour. And as she told stories about the school construction, her students and the two years it took to get non-profit status, I could see how much passion and sweat equity went into creating 3 Mariposas. After all, it was Sarah’s own house that she and her Austrian husband converted into a school.
They redesigned the layout to form open, airy classrooms; cleaned up and expanded the backyard to create a colorful playground with mango trees and flowers; and recruited foreign students and church groups to help paint the school in bright colors, giving the place a warm, child-friendly feeling.
And inside the colorful classrooms, there was a different kind of bilingual education at work than I’d ever seen before. Kids of different ages worked independently or with teachers on tasks in different corners of the room. And in the middle of the room, two children sat on the floor spelling out words and sentences with wooden letters while a teacher helped them sound out the words they wanted to spell.
“Children can read and spell long before they have the motor skills to write,” Sarah explained. “Which is why we use these wooden letters. Most schools teach children to write at the same time they learn to read, which frustrates kids. Their hands get tired, they can’t hold the pencil, and they give up. Instead, we have them reading and spelling as early as three years old so that by the time they are physically capable of gripping a pencil, they already know the words and their spellings. It makes learning to write easier.”
I thought back to my own Kindergarten class, which was taught by a gray-haired woman who hated children and smelled like a medicine cabinet. To keep us quiet, she used to make us copy our names endlessly on paper until some kid inevitably started throwing crayons and got spanked for it. Just thinking of it made me wish I’d gone to a Montessori school.
Meanwhile, a little girl, who was about 6 or 7, was mopping the floor and scrubbing chairs with soap and water. I was about to ask if this was some kind of punishment, but Sarah explained that each student has a job or “Practical Life Activity,” of his or her choosing. These activities teach children responsibility and the importance of taking care of their environment. As Montessori educational theory asserts, it is always a goal “to make the child independent and be able to do things for himself… When the children are able to do things for themselves there is an increase in their self belief, self confidence and esteem that they may carry on throughout their life.”
This tenet must hold some truth because what I saw of the children at 3 Mariposas, who varied in age from 3 to 7, was a great deal of respect for school property. When a child finished a task, he dutifully packed up the items he was using and put them back on the shelf without being asked. And at snack time, children as young as 3 were given real glasses and ceramic plates, rather than plastic dishes, which Sarah explained was to show the children they could be trusted with “adult” things, which relates back to Montessori’s theories of child responsibility and building confidence.
I’m sure that long after I’ve left Cabarete, my visit to 3 Mariposas — and the experience of seeing first-hand how Dominican children have benefitted from Sarah’s work — will stand out as a highlight of my stay. It also serves as a reminder of the wonderful opportunities that arise when traveling, as long as I remain open to learning from the amazing people I meet along the way. Sometimes those people are native residents, and sometimes they’re expats like Sarah who’ve traveled abroad and created something amazing in the community they’ve settled down in. There’s a lot of inspiration to be found out there in the world, if you look for it.
And because we were so inspired by 3 Mariposas, Ryan and I decided to donate $3,000 from Teaching House, our ESL teacher training school, to help support the kids who attend the school. And, in addition, we’re asking you, our friends and readers, to visit the donation page on the 3 Mariposas web site to read more about the school. And if you feel inspired, you can also click on the “Donate Now” link.
Every little bit of aid really does help, so if this story has inspired you, please consider donating to this wonderful project. Even $10 makes a difference to a youngstudent’s life.