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On most week days, 6-year-old Minami Yasuda waves goodbye to her father as she walks in the door at the Montessori Language Academy at 314 Circle Ave., right across from St. John Lutheran Church.
She takes off her shoes, puts on indoor slippers, gets a paper cup full of colored pencils and begins to create a picture. At her little table, a 5 year old is working with letter tiles from one of the Japanese alphabets. At another table, a 3 year old is busily ladling water from one container to another and experimenting with how an eye dropper works.
Without saying a word, Yoko Avramov, MLA’s director, sits down on the edge of a large circle taped to the classroom floor. The children gradually follow her lead, and within five minutes, the daily routine begins with stretching exercises.
Yoko-Sensei, as her students call her, and the other four teachers only speak in Japanese to the children. At MLA, kids learn Japanese the way most children across the world learn a language – by being immersed in it.
A language academy
Minami lives in Forest Park with her family, but her father Hiroshi was born in Japan. “She did not speak Japanese at home,” he said. “Even when I spoke to her in Japanese, she was more comfortable responding in English.”
The Yasudas sent Minami to MLA where she would hear and speak Japanese every morning.
“When Minami came home from MLA and started singing a Japanese song,” he recalled, “it almost made me cry.”
Likewise, Gideon Batai lives in Forest Park, but his dad is Japanese and most of his father’s family still lives in Japan.
“It’s important for him to be able to communicate with his grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins,” said Gideon’s mom, Melissa. “We know it is easier to learn a second language at a young age. If the school would have allowed children to start at an age earlier than 3, we would have started him earlier.”
Oak Parkers Bruce Caughlin and Octavia Kincaid said their daughter Ailsa picked up a lot of Japanese at MLA.
“She can hold conversations with adults who are fluent in Japanese,” Caughlin said. “She can read and write in two ‘alphabets,’ and she is learning a third.”
An academic head start
Busy parents can drop their children off at MLA as early as 7:30 a.m. and pick them up as late as 6 p.m. The morning teachers speak only Japanese to the children, while the afternoon staff speaks only English. Almost an hour of physical activity is part of each day’s schedule.
Children are accepted into the program when they turn 3 and are potty trained. They graduate at 6 years old. Some parents enroll their children right after they are born, since the waiting list is one to two years long, Avramov said.
Parents drive from as far away as the Chicago neighborhoods of Edgebrook and Chinatown to the north suburb of Schaumburg to have their children experience the method of learning at MLA, created by the Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori in the first half of the 20th century. Parents have also raved about how well MLA, which is certified by the American Montessori Society every year, has prepared their children for school.
Melissa Batai felt confident about the transition Gideon made to first grade. She said that MLA helped her son learn how to socialize with other children and become an independent learner. Independent learning is one of the emphases of the Montessori method. MLA’s director smiled when she said, “If you ask children in this school they will say, ‘Yes, we love Yoko-Sensei, but we didn’t learn anything from her. We learned by ourselves.'”
Every teacher at MLA has taken Montessori training and is credentialed. Avramov herself took two years of Montessori training and then went on to earn a master’s degree in early childhood development from Concordia University.
Melissa Batai said that his experience at MLA not only made her son well prepared for academic success, but it also opened him to appreciate other cultures.
“MLA made Gideon well-rounded in the sense that he is now interested in other cultures throughout the world, not just American and Japanese. He did his kindergarten graduation project on flags of the world.”
Avramov and her staff create a quiet, respectful, orderly ambience in their classroom – very similar to what travelers to Japan experience.
“We teach students how to respect each other,” she explained. “One girl came into the program and didn’t know how to respect personal space. She was hugging everyone like it was a football game. After a few months she started to respect people’s space, and in turn to respect herself.”
Many parents say that MLA’s director almost walks on pedagogical water. Bruce Caughlin, for example, said, “Every family at MLA has their own reasons for attending. For us, it was Yoko-Sensei. If she was teaching Esperanto or Pig-Latin, we’d sign up. Ailsa was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes before she turned 1, and she has an insulin pump. Yoko-Sensei made us feel safe and the school has managed things wonderfully.”
Avramov was born in Kyoto, Japan, is married to a Bulgarian and lives in Oak Park. She knows from experience what building linguistic and cultural bridges is all about.
“I felt very stupid when I came here,” she recalled. “I can understand how to help American children who are dyslexic or have other problems with language, because I struggled to learn English.”