ALLEGHENY CITY, PA–According to retired steelworker Martin Kramarczyk, 67, something weird is definitely going on inside that Montessori school across the street from his house.
"I've been keeping an eye on that place for a while now, and I'm telling you, something just ain't right about it," said Kramarczyk, peering at the Allegheny Montessori Learning Center through his living-room window. "I wouldn't be surprised if one of these days the FBI came down and busted it for some sort of kinky, perverted stuff."
Though Kramarczyk has no hard evidence of improprieties at the school, he said he has "some pretty strong suspicions" about its internal activities.
"Everything about it seems a little off. I mean, they got kids playing out on the playground at all times of the day. And scraping away on those weird Mexican gourds. What kind of school is that?" Kramarczyk asked. "And the teachers have always got the kids doing these weird little puppet shows. That's gotta tell you something right there."
One of almost 4,000 such schools in the U.S., the Allegheny Montessori Learning Center was founded in 1978 and employs educational methods pioneered in 1912 by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori. The school's 47 students, all of whom are under 10, are encouraged to learn at their own pace through activities designed to engage their intellect.
"We provide a stimulating and inspiring classroom environment that empowers children to develop their personalities and become strong, independent-minded individuals," AMLC instructor Ellen Driscoll said. "The Montessori method rejects the traditional teacher-student relationship, in which the teacher is in control and the student passively accepts knowledge. Instead, the teacher serves as a guide who enhances a child's learning ability by appealing to their creativity and recognizing their individual talents. The child learns by doing things herself."
"Today, some of the older students are learning how to make rock candy," Driscoll continued. "Then we're going to learn a traditional folk song from the French province of Picardy!"
"Look, I was taught by the nuns and, sure, they could go a little overboard with the switch sometimes, but it was a good, thorough education, with none of this weirdo stuff," Kramarczyk said. "I had to drop out of the ninth grade to support the family, but I knew the three Rs up and down. All these kids know how to do is play autoharps and grow bean plants. That ain't education to me. I don't know what it is, but it ain't education."
Kramarczyk said that in the past few months, he has observed numerous strange goings-on at the school, including children fanning out across the neighborhood, armed only with hand-drawn maps and compasses; teachers pretending to be students and vice-versa; and energetic sing-alongs in observance of Learn Three New Things Day.
Most disturbing of all, Kramarczyk said, was a May occurrence he calls "The Egg Incident."
"A truck pulled up to the school one afternoon and a couple men got out," Kramarczyk recalled. "They were carrying in boxes. A day later, I could see a bunch of egg incubators on the windowsills of one of the classrooms. Then, a couple weeks later, as I was walking the dog near the school, I heard peeping noises. Why'd those kids need to hatch eggs? Aren't there farms that do that sort of thing? It just don't add up."
Kramarczyk said he has had direct contact with school personnel just once, and the meeting only confirmed his suspicion.
"A few months back, I was trimming the hedges, and a ball came flying over their fence and into my front yard," Kramarczyk said. "I looked down at it and noticed it was a multi-colored, knitted-fabric kind of ball I've only seen at the Montessori school. That type of ball doesn't even bounce. That's another queer thing. Montessori balls never bounce."
Continued Kramarczyk: "Next thing you know, standing in front of me is a Montessori teacher with one of the kids, who's probably about seven. So I toss the kid back his strange little ball, and the teacher says to him, 'What do you say to the man, Jeffrey?' The kid looks up at me and says, 'Merci beaucoup.' Then the teacher says, 'Or...' and the kid says, 'Danke schoen.' Then the teacher says, 'Or...' again, and the kid says, 'Domo arigato.' Then they walk off."
AMLC director Roberta King insisted that Kramarczyk misunderstands the school's curricula and teaching methods.
"We are aware of Mr. Kramarczyk's fears about our school, and the various theories he has circulated at civic-association meetings," King said. "I'd like to take this opportunity to say that, although the Montessori method is of Italian origin, we are not affiliated with the Mafia in any way. Nor is the school a sweatshop that forces the children to produce black-market finger paintings. And not one toddler who is enrolled in our day-care program has ever been boiled in a broth."
To help Kramarczyk better understand Montessori education, King offered to take him on a personal guided tour of the school. Kramarczyk rejected the offer.
"Oh, no, forget it," Kramarczyk said. "There's no telling what would happen to me in that place. They'd probably strap me to their big abacus and pelt me with Montessori balls. Or cover me with plaster of Paris and leave me there to harden into a life-size statue for use in some kind of educational display about retired steelworkers. No way, folks. I wasn't born yesterday."