Donn Liston has lived in Alaska since 1962 and in Eagle River since 2010. He was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News during pipeline construction and is a retired teacher after becoming certified in Juneau after living there 20 years. Donn taught Adult Basic Education in the Anchorage community of Mt. View and in the Mat-Su Job Center between 2007-2017. He was named a BP Teacher of Excellence in 2013.
You can reach Donn Liston at firstname.lastname@example.org
Wednesday, August 15, 2018
Working in the Alaska Legislature, 30th Session 2018. BY DONN LISTON
The Unfortunate Demise of Tom Thumb Montessori
Margaret Green teaching at Tom
Thumb Montessori School.
Alaskan baby boomers experienced a remarkable 50-year Anchorage private
education option that I was proud to have attempted to save from bankruptcy. I
learned important lessons from this effort.
Tom Thumb was the
first Montessori School in Anchorage (TTMS). In its prime, this was the largest
private Montessori school in the United States–with nearly 600 students being
served at five locations here, plus two locations in Boise, Idaho.
By 2006 Tom Thumb was
Today the ghosts of
those schools are roaming at several day-care centers around Anchorage–which
are former affiliates of TTMS–but don’t tell the kids.
My experience with
TTMS goes back to when I had a publishing and public relations company in the
late 1970s and did business with Margaret Green, owner and Directress
of TTMS. She ran the school enterprise with an iron fist in a velvet glove.
She died at age 93 in
2013.I so admired her to the end.
How did I get myself
into this mess?
Returning from Juneau
to Anchorage in 2003 with a Master’s Degree in Education and a Type A teaching
certificate, I was substituting in the Anchorage School District
and tutoring at Sylvan Learning Systems. I was looking for
my career niche.
It didn’t take long in
my “old Anchorage stomping grounds” before I noticed the condition of the
schools Mrs. Green and her hard-working husband Harold Green, Sr. had
built; I was shocked at how dilapidated they were! The Greens had originally
come to Alaska in 1946 and homesteaded in Eagle River to be, in Mr. Green’s
words: “run out by bears.” He was a New York Yankees baseball fan
and an entrepreneur. Among the Green’s several successful endeavors were Harold’s
Grocery, Harold’s Hardware, Alaskan Electronics, Silver Scissors, and Gambell
Street Business College.
These were frontier
Alaskans building a future in Anchorage.
When I talked to them about what had
happened to their once thriving schools during my absence, they told of passing
on their cherished enterprise to a son and watching it go into immediate and
Harold Jr. had never
been actively involved in the schools and I don’t know why they bequeathed it
My challenge following
several meetings: Could the enterprise be saved from imminent disaster at this
late stage? Could it be returned to its Montessori roots?
The son, my age and a
former East High School chum, was a John Marshall Law School graduate,
attorney, and Realtor, in the middle of a divorce. It was ugly. Everything was
on the line—the schools, the real estate, visitation of the children, all the
assets. Mr. and Mrs. Green were in distress, and I entered into a written
agreement with them to take over and maintain the schools until the court made
a decision about who gets what.
50 years in business and this is what it
had come to.
Harold Jr. was okay
with me taking over; I was named Superintendent, and I graduated the last class
from this school, which included the Green’s grandson.
For background: I
never entered the teaching profession at midlife to make a killing financially.
I had already worked nine years in Juneau for the teacher union, NEA-Alaska,
and I aspired to reach students outside of unionized education factories. I
always believed forcing public employees to be members of a public sector union
was wrong. This issue–whether public employees can be forced to be members of a
union–is being considered presently by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Janus
v. AFSCME. If teachers were not required to be members, unions would have to
earn membership, and I believe public education would be better without union
protections for mediocrity.
Further, I aspired to
reach students who needed a good male role model and hoped to approach the
training of children and youth objectively. Having never had kids of my own I
sought to learn what makes a good teacher from those who have proven themselves
to be good teachers, such as my hero Jaime Escalante, the California
Teacher about whom the movie Stand and Deliver was made.
Mrs. Green was a
pioneer of the Montessori Method in Alaska beginning in 1956, just as Maria
Montessori herself had been a pioneer of the education of children to
create the Montessori Method in Italy at the turn of the century. Being the
first woman to graduate from the University of Rome, “Ms.
Montessori became Italy’s first female physician in 1896. Over the next few
years she became involved with the condition of those who were called
“defective” children--first as their doctor and then as an activist who
believed the deprived environment of the children was in part responsible for
devised systems for teaching children who had been rejected by the public
schools as “idiots.” “When she was able to make those unteachable
children capable of passing the same exams given to public school children, the
entire nation took notice,” according to a Training Manual written by Mrs.
Green. To address this situation required an innovative approach to meeting the
basic needs of children while elevating their cognitive pursuits. Some couldn’t
even talk, but they had to learn how to communicate and function in society.
Mrs. Green received
instruction in the Montessori Method in London, from the son of Dr. Montessori.
She replicated the method as closely as possible to the founder’s intent. Her
comprehensive book is entitled: How To Make Sure Your Child Grows Up To
Be A Winner The Creative Montessori Way.
In explaining the
philosophy of Montessori, Mrs. Green states: Maria Montessori’s philosophy
is based on the premise that children desire to learn from and to imitate
adults. In fact, this very desire is often the cause of many conflicts between
adults and children. How often are children told to look and not touch but are
expected to understand such properties of matter as delicacy or durability?
It’s all right to drop the plastic catchup bottle, but not Aunt Faye’s
porcelain cup. Children are forbidden to pour their own juice because of the
uncertainty of a spill, but if they never practice, how will they learn?
Through the use of prepared environment, 3 to 5 year olds are able to
practice practical life skills which enable them to become confident, secure
and independent learners.”
Environment is a cornerstone of the Montessori Method.
Further, Mrs. Green’s
self-published book provides an insightful overview of Montessori, with Part
I explanations of the philosophy and a description of the Adult’s role
in the Montessori Classroom:…discipline must come through liberty. (meaning)
Small children have an innate dignity of their own which is often unknowingly
trampled upon by the adults in their lives who are just trying to be helpful,”
to How to begin a Montessori Class and Safety Concepts in the Classroom.
Her learning process is formal and structured so children take incremental
Part II of Mrs. Green’s book includes curriculum on Practical
Life aspects of Montessori: Lesson plans for Care of the Person, Care of
the Environment, Sorting and Matching, Food Preparation, Grace and Courtesy,
and Control of Movement.
Part IIISensorial Material includes lesson
examples in Visual, Tactile, Auditory, Smell, and Taste.
Part IVLanguage Arts and Writing details
innovations such as making six-inch letters of the alphabet cut from sandpaper
to give a tactile component to learning for little fingers.
Part VMath and Exercises in More Complex
Operations uses cubes and beads and group games to build basic
understanding at a primary level in the brain. Through familiarization of
concepts of math without onerous drills, the Montessori Method provides a
foundation for higher level understanding of math.
Part VIScience examines Botany through
types of seeds and leaves to examination of plant cells through a microscope. Physics
are explored by establishing the difference between magnetic vs. nonmagnetic
through the making of a compass. Zoology examines living vs. nonliving,
plant or animal and vertebrate or invertebrate.
Part VIIHistory & Time introduces the
concept of time using a Montessori Clock manipulative. Another
lesson examines the different parts of a flag in a matching game with various
countries on a map. This provides a holistic overview of time relative to
Part VIIICreative Arts including Music and Art
are instrumental to a Montessori school day. Mrs. Green was a graduate of Julliard
School of Music in New York, and played piano at a very high
level. She recommends a number of activities: During the period under five,
there is a real sense being formed in the inner being of the child. The
significance of the ability to be able to match one form to another can be
appreciated as the child works with the sensorial materials. The child needs to
be given the possibility of observation so that as he looks around his
environment he can heighten his appreciation of form, she wrote.
Many of these concepts
originally introduced by Dr. Montessori are now commonplace in all of our
amalgamated education system schools, where educational fads prevail--anything
dreamed up is thrown against the wall to see what will stick. We have now seen
generations of these fads in educational theory which mostly distract from the
basics of the Reading, Writing, Math, History and Life Skills necessary to be
successful in modern society. Dr. Montessori likely would have rejected the
unstructured, anything-goes approach, of many schools today in favor of her
highly structured systems--teaching specific skills in a pedagogically sound
During the 1930s
certain elites introduced their version of the Montessori Method in the United
States. In response, Dr. Montessori came over from Europe, saw how her system
was being bastardized, and put an end to it here with threats of lawsuits. Our
American public education institutions had already embraced the heresy of John
Dewey–a professed Socialist–whose theories have prevailed and brought our
schools to where they are today, including nationalized Common Core curriculum.
The Hope of Tom Thumb
Taking over an
enterprise in the condition of TTMS with aspirations of bringing it back to its
previous level of excellence was a challenge I relished. Five schools, in
four locations were the life’s work of the Greens, with the headquarters in
Spenard, a midtown school on Fairbanks Street, a school on Boniface Parkway,
and two at O’Malley Rd and Lake Otis Pkwy. I felt a profound sense of
responsibility to those parents who entrusted their precious children to our
care and enlightenment.
Everywhere I looked in
the classrooms and play areas of TTMS I saw Mrs. Green’s firm but gentle
inspired hands reinforced by Mr. Green’s ability to make things work.
But practically I saw
another dynamic at play; I was the interloper in a system run from the central
office that was taking in money but declining in product quality and long-term
sustainability. Further, I was frankly shocked after meeting with the Green’s
long-time accountant at what the enterprise revenues had been upon handing the
enterprise over to Harold Jr. It had needed a champion, someone who could fight
for its viability, but now it was squeaking by and in need of serious upgrades
The other thing faced
during this time was regulatory oversight by the Municipality of
Anchorage, under AMC 16.5.010-.500 Child Care and Educational
Facilities—Centers and Homes. The department has the power to investigate
anything and everything without notice. They might be responding to a
complaint, or they might just feel like today was a good day to visit TTMS. On
one occasion investigators showed up at the O’Malley school as I was wearing a
tool belt and helping with renovations. I had to drop everything to accommodate
Given the pages of
requirements, timeframes, and expectations, the possibility of running a viable
private school is greatly diminished under the code, rather favoring church or
other government-sponsored non-profit corporations. The regulations read, in part:
“The department recognizes the responsibility of parents to select and monitor
caregivers for their children in order to ensure a reasonably safe and
developmentally appropriate childcare environment. The licensing standards and
procedures in this chapter are intended to reduce predictable risk of harm to
children and to provide support services to those providing child care.”
I ask you: Are parents responsible or not?
Since anybody can be a
parent, the need to provide government oversight of child care facilities seems
reasonable. But at what point does government intrusion into a business
enterprise simply because it deals with children become overkill? I was a
certified teacher and all of our facilities were licensed. Our teachers were
licensed and trained. Parents chose to bring their children to our facilities
and we provided educational services as well as daycare. Shouldn’t that be
Mrs. Green fought what
she felt was overregulation of her schools by the Municipality of Anchorage. A
1990 story in the Anchorage Daily News describes the next round
of an ongoing saga with the sensationalized headline: “Tom Thumb Fights Again.”
Enrollment at that time was listed as 320. The writer, Dusty Rhodes
described the situation thus: Whenever any agency the Alaska State Board of Education,
the state Department of Education, the Anchorage borough or the municipality
has attempted to add regulations that would increase her costs, Green has
fought to keep her schools operating just as she established them. And every
time despite the fact that the state has received significant complaints about
incidents at her schools (see accompanying story) Green won.http://thepixeldust.com/thepixeldust.com/tomthumbmain.html
I would argue that
Mrs. Green was fighting increased costs to parents because that is who
ultimately pays for childcare if she has to raise rates to accommodate
government requirements. TTMS rates were stable, the program was well
established, and the Muni had an obligation to help this school stay in
business to serve those who chose to have their children there.
Also from that story: Margaret
Green isn’t against child care. She isn’t against the proposed ordinance and
its new regulations, either except for the one clause that would require her
and her schools to meet municipal licensing requirements. Though there is
nothing in the proposed regulations dictating educational philosophy or
content, she says the regulations would force her schools to become merely
Ultimately what Mrs.
Green feared is exactly what happened to TTMS–AFTER she was no longer able to
fight the fight for separation of school and day care programs. Any child care
center can now incorporate parts of the Montessori Method and call itself a Montessori
The Green Legacy
One of my long-term
goals during my time as Superintendent of TTMS was to establish a Margaret
Green Montessori Training Program at the O’Malley property. I am sorry
that when the court settled Harold Jr’s. divorce he decided to turn any working
schools into day-care centers with the professed hope of selling the
In retrospect, I
marvel at how amazing is it that Alaska was the point where Montessori was
reintroduced by TTMS and prospered for so long. I took on the challenge of
rehabilitation of TTMS with enthusiasm; we began regular training for teachers
at all of the five schools, with Mrs. Green actively participating! I began
refurbishing classrooms and myself building shelves for managing the Montessori
materials in the fashion they were to be dealt with in the curriculum.