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Mountaineer Montessori welcomes new head of school

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Dana Gilliland, Mountaineer Montessori Head of School, said she traveled several places before her "adventures and long, circuitous and winding detours" landed her in Charleston. 

She taught at two Montessori schools in Ohio and Montessori Bali of Indonesia prior to becoming Mountaineer Montessori Head of School. Gilliland shared accounts  of her journey at an Oct. 23 reception welcoing her to Charleston.  

From Bali to Charleston

A few years ago, Gilliland said she had an opportunity to fulfill one of her life-long dreams: living in a different culture. Since her Montessori credentials are internationally recognized, options abounded.

What kind of place did she choose? A place as different as possible from what she knew.

 "I moved to a country where virtually all the people are Hindu, living in a Muslim country, in a third-world nation, in an Asian culture, in a tropical climate — Bali, Indonesia," Gilliland said. "I chose a place that was as different as possible."

After teaching for two years at the Montessori school in Bali, it was time to come home. Because Gilliland received several different offers after returning home to the United States, she had the luxury of being able to take her pick of where to go.

Because of its rich history, the strong sense of community, the stability of the staff, and the fact it's in Charleston, she chose Mountaineer Montessori School. 

"In my mind, Charleston offers the best of many worlds," Gilliland said. "It has the urban neighborhoods that I like, it has the vibrant cultural arts scene and an incredible range of outdoor activities all within a stone's throw." 

What is a Montessori school?

More than 100 years ago, Italian physician Maria Montessori founded the Montessori educational model, based upon scientific principles of human development. 

Montessori observed four distinct periods, or "planes," in human development: birth to six years, six to 12 years, 12 to 18 years and 18 to 24 years. Based on the different characteristics, learning modes and developmental imperatives in each of the planes, educational approaches specific to each period are called for. 

The goal of Montessori schools is to teach children how to achieve success by developing their emotional, physical and social functioning as they relate to academic performance and intellectual growth.

Starting From the beginning

Gilliland's 54-year-long journey to Charleston and Mountaineer Montessori School began in Colorado, where she was born the seventh of 10 children. She said her family moved to a few different cities before her father decided to pursue a dream of his own.

"My father decided to pursue his dream of living in Italy, by himself, leaving us to pretty much raise ourselves," she said. "I think that being part of such a big family with a single parent may have provided the biggest and most important qualification that I have for this job, because I'm really good at sharing and I get along with everybody."

By age 16, Gilliland was ready to move on to a new city. She found an apartment, enrolled in high school and worked two jobs in order to pay rent.

"In this way, I discovered the joy and satisfaction of really truly hard work," Gilliland said. "I recognized the dignity and nobility that comes with all kinds of work, from serving fast food to cleaning up public bathrooms at the end of the day."

When it came time for college, Gilliland said she attended classes whenever she could scrape up enough money for a class or two. In order to help herself financially with college, Gilliland became a partner in a commercial printing business and was shop manager for six years. 

During that time, she said she learned how to run a business but, more importantly, learned how to manage and nurture employees, helping them discover and share their individual gifts. 

After about five years of juggling work and school, Gilliland took a class in elementary education.

"It was like the clouds parted and the sun came out and shined down on me, and I discovered my calling," she said. "I am meant to be an educator. Having so clear a calling is, I believe, a rare and wonderful gift, and I feel very profound gratitude that I am able to have that."

During the course of working and her college education, other things were going on, Gilliland said. She married, had children and after taking classes for 10 years, graduated with a degree in education. 

Why Montessori schools?

Although Gilliland had learned a little about Montessori in undergraduate work, she said it wasn't until it came time to choose a preschool that her intention to use public schools suddenly shifted. 

"We lived in a very good school district with all intentions of using our public schools," she said. "When I went to visit, though, I changed my mind. I was surprised. 

"I was surprised that with the young children, the schools weren't doing more to take advantage of this explosive time of learning."

After visiting a nearby Montessori school, Gilliland said she was awestruck by the beauty of the room, the energy, the industriousness and the independence of the students and knew it was where she wanted her children to be.

"After they finished their first year there, I knew I wanted to be there too," she said. "I just followed right along. I went back to school, got my Montessori certification, and I've been teaching in a Montessori school ever since."

Montessori in Charleston

"Truthfully, Charleston is ideally poised to become the next high growth area for Montessori education," Gilliland said. "In response to increase in demand at our school, Mountaineer Montessori is now in the process of bringing in the top international consultants in the world to help us, to guide us, through our upcoming expansion plans."

Harry Bell, president of Montessori board of directors and who has a son in junior elementary at Mountaineer, said enrollment is up nearly 20 percent with a waiting list for admission for the current academic term. The school serves nearly 100 students ages 3-12 and is exploring expanding programs to include toddler and middle-school students and hiring additional professionals to meet demand.

West Virginia is home to several Montessori schools.

When it comes to nurturing growth, Gilliland said relationships are vital.

"We need to develop and nurture these relationships to grow and make the city an even better place to live," she said.