For 20 years “Miss Leslie” Dillon has been providing Montessori education for children ages 2-1/2 to 6 in a quiet corner of El Dorado Hills.
Dillon grew up in Menlo Park with a dream to someday become an elementary teacher. She followed her dream to San Diego State University, where she earned a degree in Early Childhood Education from San Diego State University.
As a former competitive gymnast, Dillon found her first job teaching P.E. She taught competitive gymnastics, water sports, aerobics and ballet.
She found her vocation when she went to a Montessori school in San Diego that taught children from preschool to 8th grade. “I was so impressed with what the students were doing,” she said. “They were reading and doing advanced math. Each one was focused and motivated.”
Dillon went to a highly recommended Montessori training school, commuting from San Diego to Los Angeles for three years. She studied with acclaimed teacher Pamela Koby, and rose from assistant teacher to head teacher.
She opened her first Montessori school in Burlingame in 1981, and also had schools in Los Altos and Mountain View. When her husband Jim came to work for HP in Roseville, the family settled in El Dorado Hills.
Gary Bricker, a local attorney who owned Lake Forest Plaza on the corner of Green Valley Road and Francisco Drive, was familiar with the Montessori method of education. He encouraged Dillon to locate a school there and offered the use of the back area for a playground. She opened for her first class in 1991.
The Montessori method
Dr. Maria Montessori, who lived from 1870-1952, was the first woman in Italy to receive a medical degree. She worked with special needs children and poor children in Rome. She observed the children and said they taught her how to teach them. She went against the conventional approach to education, which was to have large groups of children doing the same thing at the same time in the same way. Her method is based on respect for the child. Her basic concepts are: 1) the teacher pays attention to the child, rather than the child paying attention to the teacher; 2) the child proceeds at his or her own pace in an environment that provides means of learning; 3) imaginative teaching materials are the heart of the process; 4) each child is self-correcting.
The method relies on motor education, “from the hands to the mind,” sensory education and language.
In the classroom, the furniture is child-sized and the supplies are low so that children can retrieve and put them back. The children work without interruption until snack or mealtime. At mealtime, they help prepare their place at the table, wash their hands and clean up afterward.
With mixed-age groups in which students teach each other, they learn to care for others and for their environment.
Montessori’s teaching methods allowed children to master academic subjects usually not taught until middle or high school. But it is not solely an academic approach. Montessori’s teaching is also aimed at developing the emotional and spiritual aspects of a child’s personality.
The success of Montessori’s teaching methods became well-known and she traveled throughout India, Europe and North America speaking and writing about them.
Montessori Manor in El Dorado Hills
At Montessori Manor children are taught practical life experiences, sensory awareness, mathematics, language, geography, creative arts, science and movement in two large classroom areas and an outside playground. Dillon said the materials are constantly rotated to keep up the children’s interests. The science teacher prepares two new science projects every day.
Because of the location, the Montessori students are able to do special activities such as bike riding and rollerblading. The fire station is near enough the children can walk there and talk with the firefighters.
This summer they took field trips to the El Dorado County Fair to see the animals and to Rollerland in Citrus Heights.
Dillon said her school celebrates all the holidays. If any of her students have a special cultural holiday she invites the parents to make a presentation. “We have students from all over — Korean, Chinese, Norwegian, East Indian, Persian,” she said. “We had Native American students.”
Like Montessori herself, Dillon welcomes special needs children. “They do so well in our programs,” she said.
She speaks tenderly about a boy with Asperger Syndrome. “He was respected here. We’re not competitive.” The boy revealed a passion for bugs, and he learned to read, write, do math and science based on his intense interest.
After 20 years as director of Montessori Manor in El Dorado Hills, Dillon can see the results. “Of the top students who graduated from Oak Ridge High School this year, many started here at Montessori,” she said. Her own children (and Montessori students) Erica, 23, and Julia, 21, are at UC San Diego, with Thomas, 16, at Oak Ridge, where he is a competitive diver.
The Montessori method does not use computers until the child is at least 6 years old. Before that, the child is building the neural network in the brain and the focus is on developing concepts as the foundation for lifelong learning. At the age of 6, computers can be integrated into the education. Children are introduced to software that allows them to create their own programs.
Montessori parents are a loyal group, volunteering when necessary, and appreciative of the educational foundation their children are receiving. Besides the academic stimulus, they value the social skills their children develop.
Doug Dieter, a real estate and development consultant, has 5-year-old twins, Silje (Silya) and Anders, at Montessori Manor. His mother is a teacher, his sister has a Montessori school in Florida and his wife, Kirsten is a special education teacher. He said, “The children get along well. There are all kinds of activities at different levels, wonderful teachers and an excellent learning environment.”
Clay Miller is a single father. He is a retired nurse from the Bay Area. His son Austin, 5, was diagnosed with autism. “He didn’t speak. He couldn’t express himself,” said the father. Miller had tried several other placements for Austin, but when he found Montessori Manor he knew that was the right place for Austin. “Leslie is so passionate about the kids. She has been a great help to me giving me pointers for things I can do at home. Austin has been here two years, and the other children are so caring about him.”
The school is open Monday through Friday. Classes are offered five days, three days and two days a week. Hours are mornings 8:30 to 11:30 a.m., afternoons noon to 3 p.m., or full day 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Before school care is from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. After school care is from 3 to 6 p.m.
The school is located at 2222 Francisco Drive, Suite 400. The telephone number is (916) 933-2420. For more information visit MontessoriManorPreschool.com.