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Verna Montessori School offers unique way of teaching

| Wednesday, April 10, 2013, 7:48 a.m.
Linda Harkcom | for the Daily Courier
Verna Montessori School second-grader Gage Sheffler, 8, of Hunker plays the bells in the music classroom at the school.
Linda Harkcom | for the Daily Courier
This new library was added to the Verna Montessori School as part of a major expansion in 2010.
Linda Harkcom | for the Daily Courier
Verna Montessori kindergarten students Samuel Degre, 5, of Greensburg and Samuel Joseph, 6, of Scottdale work on forming large numbers.
Linda Harkcom | for the Daily Courier
Verna Montessori kindergarten students Anthony Grippo, 5, of Mt. Pleasant and Ethan Halfhill, 5, of Normalville work on learning about geometric solids.
Linda Harkcom | for the Daily Courier
Verna Montessori first-, second- and third-grade students play Bear Soccer during gym class.
Linda Harkcom | for the Daily Courier
Verna Montessori School principal Sister Letizia Trubizio, who also teaches fourth, fifth and sixth grade, works with fifth-grader Mary Smithnosky, 10, of Mt. Pleasant.
Linda Harkcom | for the Daily Courier
Verna Montessori sixth-grader Allie Sheffler, 11, of Hunker uses a microscope to study microbiology.
Linda Harkcom | for the Daily Courier
The Verna Montessori School in Mt. Pleasant has 130 students from preschool through eighth grade.
Linda Harkcom | for the Daily Courier
The convent for the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception who run the Verna Montessori School in Mt. Pleasant. The basement and community room in the convent served as space for the first kindergarten students taught by the sisters in 1964.

A unique way of teaching academics, coupled with helping children to grow into confident and respectful adults, has been a recipe for success at the Verna Montessori School, Mt. Pleasant.

The Verna Montessori School is a child-centered nondenominational Association Montessori Internationale school for preschool through eighth grade with children as young as age 3. It is administered by the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception. The faculty reportedly offers the purity of the advanced Montessori philosophy and is strongly committed to share with the children healthy Christian values.

The Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception first came to the United States from Italy in 1961. In August of that year, a group came to Westmoreland County at the request of Bishop William Connare to open a Catholic school in the Derry area.

“They came to open doors here in the United States as we were expanding our mission in different countries,” said Sister Letizia Tribuzio, Verna Montessori School principal.

There were five sisters in the original group. One of them, Sister Angelina Grimoldi, continues to teach at Verna Montessori School.

The sisters introduced the diocese to the innovative idea of the importance of early education by opening the first kindergarten.

Later that year, the bishop suggested the sisters should have a central house that they could refer to as the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception for those stationed in the United States. A farm was chosen in the Bullskin Township countryside surrounding Mt. Pleasant. By August 1962, the farm had been converted into a convent for the order.

The sisters began working on converting the community room and basement of the convent into a small school, and on Sept. 8, 1964, they welcomed their first kindergarten class.

“They did it because they were teachers and they were used to teaching in Italy. They didn't realize early education was not as important in the United States at that time,” Tribuzio said.

Parents wanted their children to be able to stay with the sisters for their elementary education as well, and asked the diocese to grant permission for the sisters to open an elementary school. At that time, the sisters were using the traditional Italian Agazzi methodology to teach. But in order to open a new school, the sisters were sent to Italy to study at the International Center for Montessori Training.

“They got trained in the Montessori Method so then they would be the only school in the area with that training and would not be in direct competition with the other Catholic schools in the area,” Tribuzio said.

In 1968, the sisters completed their training and returned to Mt. Pleasant to open the first Montessori Children's House classroom at the convent, with 45 students. The school grew, and so did the need for more space. A horse barn on the property was converted into a small school in April 1970.

In November 1971, ground was broken for a new addition. That addition served the school well until further growth created a need for the upper elementary classrooms to be enlarged and Christina Hall to be added in 1979.

In 1986, a new wing was built onto the school to serve as the Children's House. In 2010, the school was able to expand once more with a new library, office space, new classrooms and bathrooms as well as expanding Verna Hall.

Today, the Montessori Method still sets the school apart from others in the area.

“The Montessori Method is an important part. The children do not need to memorize any formulas because they experience the concept; it will stay with them all their lives,” Tribuzio said.

In addition to the sisters from Italy, there are now sisters from Tanzania and Kenya here as well.

“I think to have teachers from different countries and different backgrounds is very interesting and enriching, because each brings from their own culture and we learn from each other a lot,” Tribuzio said.

The school remains a popular choice for local parents and students. It serves students from Southmoreland, Mt. Pleasant, Connellsville, Yough, Hempfield, Latrobe, Greensburg, Charleroi, Frazier, Laurel Highlands and Uniontown school districts.

“People come for the academics and the spirituality, also for the independence, and they see the finished product of independent students who know how to choose. They are peacemakers because there is a lot of socialization going on, because they are used to working with other people whether they like each other or not,” Tribuzio said.

Beth Raffle and Dave McIntyre of Hopwood have two sons, one who has completed the school and one in seventh grade. Even though the school is a 40-minute drive from their home, they said they chose Verna Montessori for their boys because they were impressed with the broad curriculum that was anchored heavily in math and science. They have found the school has taught their boys so much more than expected.

“The greatest compliment we've ever been given was the observation that our boys are completely comfortable in their own skin. I credit their time at Verna Montessori School for a lot of that. The children aren't just fed information; they are instilled with intellectual curiosity and the means to get that information on their own. Kids come out of Verna Montessori School not only educated, but also confident, articulate and respectful,” Dave McIntyre said.

Seventh-grader Dylan Krett, 13, of Acme has attended the school since first grade. He is very happy at the school.

“Every child is treated with respect and equality, and we get a great deal of freedom in our ideas and everything we do here,” he said. “It really makes you feel more welcome than you would at a public school because you have more of a family experience here. You also can learn more here, because if you have questions you can have greater access to the teacher. It feels like a more one-on-one experience.”

Linda Harkcom is a freelance writer.

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