article By Linda B. Bolido, Philippine Daily Inquirer
PERCHED on a hill overlooking the Cagayan River, with the gleaming blue waters of the Macajalar Bay and the silhouette of Camiguin Island visible in the distant, is the Montessori

Farm Campus

The only completed structure so far in the work-in-progress that is the La Granja Estates in Baungon, Bukidnon, the Farm represents the final stage in the vision of Italian educator Maria Montessori to provide learning through a seamless integration of classroom and real life.

It also completes the dream of couple Chris and Ann Barrameda, who have always believed in the Montessori system as the ideal instructional program not just for their own kids but for every child.

In the Montessori program, a boarding facility in a farm setting would be the ideal environment for teenagers’ holistic development, Chris said.

The facility would integrate work and entrepreneurship and stewardship with academics that would not only enhance students’ numeracy and literacy skills for formal higher education but also equip them with practical knowledge they could use whether or not they went to college.

Cost was a major consideration. A Montessori high school had to be built apart from the Orchard, which meant a huge financial outlay. The Barramedas also needed pretty good models on which to pattern their school.

But by 2003, when the Barramedas were considering their next move and the Orchard’s older students were getting ready to leave, farm schools were becoming more established, particularly in the United States, giving the couple pretty good templates for their own plans.

The school is a combination academic-vocational institution where students acquire academic competencies but also life skills, some of them even having the potential to help them earn a living.

Under the supervision of a designated teacher, students take turns running the kitchen to prepare meals. In between class sessions, they peel, slice, dice, cook and stir. The students have planted rice and corn and grow herbs that they sell to visitors.

For the first Montessori farm campus in Asia and one of only a few in the world, the couple decided Chris had to be trained. He is now director for the Erdkinder (the German word translates to “children of the soil”) Adolescent Program and business development.

Transplanted Mindanaoans, the Barramedas relocated to Bukidnon when Chris, an engineer, got the job to design and build a food processing facility. With two young children and another on the way, their main concern was the kids’ education.

Already of school age, the older kids went to one of the pioneering Montessori schools in Manila and the couple found the Italian system most suitable for the development of their children.

Right foundation

But Mindanao did not have a Montessori school. The Barramedas initially home-schooled the eldest two before placing them in regular schools. The arrival of a third then a fourth child persuaded them they had to do something if they wanted the younger kids to get a Montessori foundation.

Chris said the Montessori concept that “the child will teach himself” appealed to them.

Ann, a psychology major who held a corporate job in Manila, had become a full-time housewife in Bukidnon. As the need to give their children the kind of education they wanted became more pressing, the couple decided she might as well train in the Montessori method and set up a school where their own kids could be taught.

After Ann, who is now director for student and faculty development, completed her training in the United States, the Barramedas set up The Abba’s Orchard in 1998 beside the house the company provided for Chris in the plant complex. They started with 10 students, two of them their own.

The name reflected the couple’s religiosity. Chris is a pastor in their church and Abba, Aramaic for father, is often used to address God. Orchard referred not only to the initial location but also indicated the Barramedas’ belief that the school had to care for the children much like the trees in an orchard.

When Chris’ company folded up, the couple made the Orchard their main occupation and vocation. They decided that to grow the school they had to bring it to a more prominent location.Cagayan de Oro, one of the major cities in Mindanao and right next door to Bukidnon, was the logical choice.

The couple found a place on a hill that overlooked the bay inside the Alwana Business Park. The three-story Abba’s Orchard opened in 1999. The complex, which is also home to the couple and their children, accommodates kids 0-6 years of age in the Casa de Bambini (nursery to kindergarten) and the elementary level enrollees, (6-12 years old).

The Barramedas hewed closely to the Montessori principle that teachers were there to inspire, as much as to teach. To enable teachers to inspire, Chris said they had to create a “prepared environment” that would “let children act, react and do what they want to do.”

Flexibility

The Montessori system aims to help children move into adulthood by using principles drawn from their natural development. Its inherent flexibility allows it to adapt to a child’s needs, regardless of ability, learning style, or social maturity.

The “prepared environment” lets children respond freely to “their natural drive to work and learn.” Inherent love of learning is encouraged through spontaneous, meaningful activities supervised by a trained adult.

The children are allowed to progress at their own pace and rhythm and according to their capabilities.

Unlike conventional schooling, Montessori classes feature mainly individual instruction, mixed age grouping, more peer teaching and modeling, curriculum that is adapted to each child, and self-paced learning.

Chris said, while the environment was prepared, it was also changing “because kids change.” The Montessori environment, he said, was inclusive, no labeling, no discrimination against the differently-abled although, for more personalized supervision, the Orchard allowed no more than two of those in each class.

“(In a Montessori class,) children help one another instead of competing against each other,” he said. The school did not give out honors at the end of a school year and every student had to speak during the culminating activity.

One advantage of a mixed age group, Chris pointed out, was children who were not keeping abreast of their peers would not draw attention to themselves by being held back and made to stay in the same grade or level. The class would not know there were some who were not performing at par, Chris said.

But, of course, the teacher would know exactly what had to be done—help the slower children catch up with the rest of the class.

Ann herself trained their own teachers, who underwent an extensive and intensive internship for a few years, usually working as assistants to regular teachers.

One of the major accomplishments of the Montessori system is the students’ highly developed socialization skill. At the Orchard, a girl boldly asked the journalist visitor, “You’ll write about us? I don’t want to be in the newspaper.” A boy quickly joined in, telling the guest, “My Lola was in a newspaper before. She was mayor of Gingoog (City).”

Chris said they thought hard about going to the next level of Montessori education, an integral part of the founder’s vision.

The Barramedas’ decision to follow faithfully Maria Montessori’s vision of how children should be taught appears to have given the Orchard a sterling reputation.

The couple has been asked to open schools in different places that, from Mindanao, the Orchard has now established itself in Metro Manila. The McKinley Hill campus in Fort Bonifacio, Taguig City, (4036356) is the latest to open after the Blueridge branch in Quezon City (4370617).
Some branches are handled by former Orchard teachers while some former teachers had opened their own Montessori schools.

The Abba’s Orchard is also in Cebu City (032-2329618) and Davao City (082-2211151). The number for CDO is 088-8558800 and for the Farm Campus, 088-3090487.Visit www.theabbasorchard.com

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