At Cowles, the only public Montessori school in the state of Iowa, all they are saying is give peace a chance.
Okay, that’s not all they are saying, not by a longshot, but peace is a cornerstone of the educational model launched in 1907 by Maria Montessori that finally made its way into the Des Moines Public Schools a quarter century ago, thanks to the persistence of Mary Jean Annexstad.
One of the traditions at Cowles is the annual Peace Walk around the school’s neighborhood in Windsor Heights. This year Annexstad, a retired teacher, was back to deliver a retrospective pep talk before all of the teachers and students (and Millie, the school’s on-staff canine counselor) marched off to do their thing on Friday morning.
“We started with 20 three and four year-olds in a classroom at Hillis,” Annexstad told the crowd gathered on the Cowles playground for a group photo. “We built our way up from there. Three years later we moved here.”
It wasn’t the district’s idea to plant the Montessori seed here. It was Annexstad’s, and she had to do some convincing. Then, in the early years, she had to do lots of nurturing. All she was saying was give Montessori a chance.
“I got lots of strange looks from people who wondered what I was trying to do,” she said. “I was determined that I wanted to teach in a school of excellence.”
Now Cowles is a thriving Pre-K/8th grade building with an enrollment waiting list.
Annexstad retired three years ago, convinced that the seed she planted was in solid ground. Her principal then was Greg Grylls, now a DMPS Director of Elementary School Services and Cowles parent, who was back for the walk Friday morning.
“Mary Jean wanted to feel sure that Montessori was here to stay,” he said.
“Around here we call Mary Jean the Queen of Montessori,” said Cowles counselor and Dean of Students Tracy Lepeltak, Millie’s boss.
Grylls’ successor, Todd Johnson, asked the students to think about what peace means to them while they strolled. “Is it just the absence of war?” he wondered. “Maybe it’s that brief moment right after a good, deep laugh.”
Or the feeling you get when you give ol’ Millie a pat on the head or scratch her ears and she smiles up at you.
Maria Montessori believed that, “Establishing lasting peace is the work of education; all politics can do is keep us out of war.”
Actually, politics don’t even seem able to do that, and education’s work is never done, but there is an especially peaceful spot in the northwest corner of this school district that is cause for hope – thanks in large part to Queen Mary Jean.