Sophia Montessori Academy thrives in first year

Moira Cullings

Pauline Meert and Irene O’Brien were both working on their Master’s degrees on separate continents with little financial security when they decided it was the perfect time to open a school.

Although they laugh at the circumstances now, the women’s trust in God at the time helped them follow that call despite of the chaos of life.

“We decided there was no clear path,” said O’Brien. “But we also felt a lot of peace with that. If we just said ‘Yes,’ the doors kept opening. Things would just unfold the way they were supposed to.”

The women had dreamed for years of starting their own Montessori school, and the journey toward it was filled with uncertainties, but the bumps along the way always seemed to work themselves out.

“To us it just felt like God’s voice saying, ‘Don’t give up now. Keep trying,’” said O’Brien. “And so we did.”

Their dream became a reality in February when Sophia Montessori Academy opened its doors in Denver. The school now has 28 students ages three to six. Meert and O’Brien are the main teachers and have help from assistant teachers Emma Hecker and Teresa Warhola.

The school’s classroom is bustling with hands-on activities that embody the Montessori approach of learning crafted by Maria Montessori.

“What Doctor Montessori did is bring the curriculum to life and make it accessible to the growth and development of the child,” said O’Brien.

The school incorporates the Byzantine Catholic faith, which goes hand-in-hand with the Montessori education, said Meert.

“One of the things that’s not often known is that Montessori herself was Catholic,” she said. “Her work was very Catholic in its understanding of the human person, through learning how God made us to be, and what works best at what ages.”

The classroom at Sophia Montessori caters to its students through its small furniture, tangible materials, one-on-one lessons, and freedom to explore within the boundaries of the classroom.

“At this age, children need to be involved,” said Meert. “They want to know about their world.”

Denver, CO, May 10 2018: Sophia Montessori Academy was started by Pauline Meert and Irene O’Brien. The school opened its doors in February. (Photo by Moira Cullings)

Offering the children less structure and more freedom within the classroom is one way to incorporate Catholic teaching, said Meert.

“The children know what the boundaries are, and they have freedom within that,” said Meert. “It’s a true understanding of the freedom God gives us.”

O’Brien explained that students at Sophia Montessori can accomplish learning tasks such as counting to 1,000 because they learn in a way that makes sense to them.

“If they have this foundation of numbers and number patterns, when they’re in first grade it’s going to be a lot easier for me to introduce algebra as a system that’s fun, enjoyable and accessible,” said O’Brien.

“That’s what Montessori is — understanding the child’s needs and then the education is tailored to the child’s learning abilities,” she said.

Through that tailoring, the women have discovered that the children find more joy in learning.

“They have a certain self-confidence and desire to learn more because they have this foundation,” said O’Brien.

Meert and O’Brien hope their students take that joy with them throughout their education.

“We want to be able to see education always be joyful and productive and to really have that love of learning continue on,” said Meert.

To celebrate the families who helped open Sophia Montessori and to raise funds for the school’s future, the teachers are hosting a gala on June 2 from 6:30-9:30 p.m. at the Curtis Ballroom at Landmark in Greenwood Village.

“[We want to] celebrate the families who did so much to really get this started,” said O’Brien. “Our other goal for the fundraiser is to start building up the funds so that we can offer tuition assistance and so we can finish paying off the costs of renovation.”

Anyone interested in the mission and vision of Sophia Montessori is invited to attend.

The women have high hopes for Sophia Montessori’s future and look forward to where the journey will lead them.

“The dream is huge,” said Meert. “This is just one step. We’re just rejoicing in that.”

Sophia Montessori Gala

June 2 from 6:30-9:30 p.m.

Curtis Ballroom at Landmark

5345 Landmark Pl. Greenwood Village, 80111

To register for the gala, visit sophiamontessori.com/gala18.

COMING UP: Catholic school teachers are ‘ministers’, SCOTUS rules

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The Supreme Court on Wednesday delivered a long-awaited religious liberty decision on the right of religious schools to hire and fire teachers. The court found in favor of two Catholic schools in California, ruling that a “ministerial exception” to government interference applies to teachers in religious schools.

The ruling came in the consolidated cases of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel. The justices ruled in a 7-2 decision that teachers at Catholic grade schools qualified for the “ministers exception” established by the court in the 2012 Hosana Tabor case.

“The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito for the majority.

“Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not tolerate.”

The two California Catholic schools did not renew the contracts of the teachers in 2014 and 2015. In separate cases combined by the Supreme Court, the teachers alleged that their dismissals were based on disability and age, not poor performance. The schools claimed they were exempt from employment discrimination laws under the ministerial exception, the legal doctrine under which government cannot interfere in the employment decisions of churches and religious institutions regarding the hiring and firing of ministers.

In both cases, the teachers’ suits were dismissed by federal courts, and then reinstated by the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeal.

When the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the combined case in May, lawyers for the schools argued that “for hours on end over the course of a week,” teachers in Catholic schools were the “primary agents” by which the faith was taught to students. Argument – and questions from the bench – focused on how broadly the ministerial exception could be applied to the employees of religious schools.

The decision comes just weeks after the court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, that employers cannot fire employees because of their sexual orientation or “gender identity.” Justice Neil Gorsuch, who authored the majority opinion in that case, acknowledged that religious freedom cases related to the decision would probably come before the Court in the future.

The decision about who qualifies as a minister could directly impact future cases in which teachers might be dismissed for failing to adhere to Church teachins on same-sex marriage or transgender issues, both of which have been subjects of controversy in recent months.

“Requiring the use of the title [minister] would constitute impermissible discrimination,” the court ruled. Referencing the previous decision in Hosana Tabor, Altio wrote that there must be “a recognition that educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith are responsibilities that lie at the very core of the mission of a private religious school.”

The verdict also explicitly referenced the policy of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, home to both of the schools designating all teachers in Catholic schools as being effectively ministers.

“Like all teachers in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Morrissey-Berru was “considered a catechist,” i.e., “a teacher of religion,” Alito noted in his decision for the majority.

“There is abundant record evidence that [both teachers] performed vital religious duties. Educating and forming students in the Catholic faith lay at the core of the mission of the schools where they taught, and their employment agreements and faculty handbooks specified in no uncertain terms that they were expected to help the schools carry out this mission and that their work would be evaluated to ensure that they were fulfilling that responsibility.”

The court concluded that “when a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow.”

Joining Alito in the majority decision were Justices Thomas, Breyer, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, as well as Chief Justice John Roberts. Justices Sotomayer and Ginsburg dissented.