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Alternative education gives future startups a head start

A  handful of 2-year-olds, bundled up in their bright jackets, mittens, hats and patterned rain boots traipse through the yard with their teacher.

“The leaves fall down, the leaves fall down, the leaves fall down in the fall…” she sings.

The children aren’t playing any kind of game outside on this 37-degree November day, they’re just…playing.

“That’s a hole,” their teacher says.

She gingerly steps into the middle of the hole and then steps back up on to the level ground. A nearby 2-year-old observes this and mimics her actions, slowly stepping into the hole and then easing himself up again.

Later, the teacher spots a fallen pod from a tree and picks it up, bringing it up to her ear and shaking it. Kneeling down, she holds the pod next to a young child’s ear and shakes it again.

“Listen,” she says.

A smile slowly creeps across his face as he, too, hears the sound.

This is a typical morning for youngsters at Prairie Hill Montessori School in Roca, Neb.

“An important part of Montessori education is to have experiences with their world,” said Mandie Schadwinkel, a primary Montessori teacher and director of enrollment and programs at Prairie Hill.

It’s these real-world experiences that allow some to see a connection between Montessori education and entrepreneurship.

“To be an entrepreneur means a lot of different things,” said Steve Kiene, Managing Principal of Lincoln startup Nebraska Global and the father of two Prairie Hill students.

Entrepreneurship is about resilience, determination and finding a way to see things differently, he said. It’s about developing a sense of “wonderment,” an attitude Kiene thinks is encouraged in the environment at Prairie Hill.

“This is how I built my businesses,” he said. “Assume the good in people, or in kids, give them the opportunity to learn at their own pace, give them the opportunity to fail, give them responsibility and trust and be a guide more than dictating what they do.”

Maria Montessori developed this method of educating in the 1900s as a way to emphasize experiences rather than formulated lesson plans. It’s a method free of tests or grades in a multi-aged classroom as children direct their own learning and discovery.

Prairie Hill started in 1981 and is the only Montessori school in the Lincoln area that instructs children from 18 months to 14 years old. It’s located seven miles south of Lincoln and has 88 students enrolled.

“(Maria) Montessori really felt that teaching children to think for themselves and to be independent in their mind and in their bodies is going to help them to be able to have the options they want for the jobs when they get older,” Schadwinkel said.

On an average day, a 5-year-old might identify leaves while a 10-year-old works with beads to solve a math problem and a nearby 14-year-old talks about her favorite right guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.

Montessori learning allows children to lean into areas that interest them the most instead of learning at the same pace as their classmates. It allows fluidity and freedom, Schadwinkel said, and sometimes that scares people.

Scott Baird admitted that not getting grades or report cards for his three children who attend Prairie Hill is a bit nerve-racking. But he’s also consistently impressed with the way his children learn without the standard benchmarks in a traditional classroom.

“It’s really the sense of capability they instill in kids that is one of the most impressive things,” said Baird, vice president of Software Technology Inc. “You’re just amazed at what children are capable of and it really sets a high bar for what you expect your children to do at home.”

He used the example of his 11-year-old daughter who loves to read, but at Prairie Hill she isn’t in a ‘reading group’ with other kids her age. Instead, she’s reading with fifth- through eighth-graders on a daily basis. If she needs help, her classmates help her, and vice versa.

It’s experiences like these that develop a vital sense of “empowerment”  to entrepreneurs, Schadwinkel said.

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Additionally, Lincoln Public Schools has five Focus Programs that provide expanded opportunities for student learning. LPS’ focus programs emphasize arts and humanities, information technology, entrepreneurship and science. Students enrolled in the focus programs attend the schools from 8 a.m to 12:30 p.m. and spend the rest of the day at their home high schools.

The focus programs allow students who have a specific educational bent to explore this option during high school and still maintain LPS standards.

“The intent is to help students who don’t always fit the mold of a traditional high school setting,” said Mindy Roberts, principal at the Bryan, Entrepreneurship and Information Technology focus schools. “The opportunities we have are just amazing. They really take kids’ interest levels to a higher level and help them creatively explore what they’re passionate about.”

Roberts described many of the focus school students as “forward-thinking” and “self-starters” who continually think about how their educational paths will impact their future job prospects.

“Clearly, you spend more time pursuing what you’re passionate about and some people will argue you can or can’t teach entrepreneurship,” said Dale Eesley, professor and director at the Center for Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Franchising at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.  “I think what you have to have is hard work and persistence and spending time on something you love, and Montessori school allows students to focus on things that are of great interest for them.”

Eesley said the way entrepreneurship is taught in college has changed over the years. It’s moved away from developing detailed business plans to encouraging students to get their ideas heard in real-world business settings.

Similarly, Montessori learning weaves real-life applications into every activity.

At Prairie Hill, everything from fundraisers to school plays is completely student-run. If students are going on a field trip  called a “going out” experience in Montessori lingo — the students need to raise the funds, map out where they’re going and even write their own permission slips.

“What I want to enable them to do is to take on work by themselves, to teach themselves to be independent of the teacher and take on their studies on their own and answer questions for themselves and explore the world in a larger way,” said Jason Nord, an 11-year teacher at Prairie Hill who primarily works with the older students, ranging in age from 9 to 14.

Kiene sees a number of parallels between Montessori education and startups, and he believes that if more children were brought up in Montessori schools there would be more entrepreneurs.

“Every single kid is a unique snowflake. Let’s figure out how to maximize what they are and what they can be,” Kiene said. “That’s not what public schools are geared for, it’s what Montessori is geared for.”

Entrepreneurs are important because small businesses are important, Kiene explained, and that’s where he sees job potential for the future.

Not every child can or should grow up to be an entrepreneur, Baird said, and not every child who attends a Montessori school will pursue that path. However, Baird does see merit in the values his children are receiving at Prairie Hill.

“I think a big part of being an entrepreneur is just having the guts to do what no one else is doing. It’s easy to work for someone else — I’ve done that my whole life,” Baird said. “There are so many people who are too scared to start their own business. Entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone, but I think [a Montessori education] does foster the ‘I can do this’ attitude that entrepreneurs have.”