When Athirai Baskaran moved to the United States with her family in 1998, she couldn’t have known her love for education would transform the lives of so many around her. Thought she came from a family of educators, she initially chose a different path. Later, after witnessing her child’s experience in a Montessori school and volunteering as a parent, she decided to pursue teacher certification from Dallas Montessori Academy. In 2003, she began a classroom in her dining room with one student—her son.
Her passion for the Montessori philosophy, coupled with her love of education and desire to help others succeed, led her to offer others in her community a free education for their children in her home. In a short time, she was registered, licensed, and offering everything a private preschool would, including uniforms and lunch programs. The parents were impressed with Athirai and the effect her homeschool was having on their children and insisted on paying her.
By 2006, news of her outstanding program spread, and with the help of a small business loan from the SBA she opened Children’s Garden Montessori Academy --- named after the excellent school she attended in India as a child. Athirai worked with architects to create a school that captured her vision, not of a colorful, kid-themed building but a sophisticated design that would help parents and children see preschool education from a different perspective.
Grateful she’s been given an opportunity to execute her vision, her hope was to give other women employment opportunities within her school. Eleven years and four schools later, she’s done just that; her schools employ over 100 women, many of them single moms who’ve been offered careers they might not have otherwise had. In 2015, thanks to her mentors James and Dina Paulik, Athirai began the Dallas Montessori Training Academy to train educators in the Montessori Method; now the school enrolls between 20 and 30 teachers per year.
Athirai is dedicated to true Montessori education, created by the first Italian women doctor and educator, Dr. Maria Montessori. Sadly, “Montessori” has become a buzz word in society and many facilities climbing to use the philosophy or not. If educators are focused on your child’s issues (hasty ADD or ADHD diagnoses, etc.), rather than their own insufficient teaching methods, consider it a red flag. Athirai hopes every parent will research their education choices, as she knows the vast difference between true Montessori and those that have been over commercialized.
The Montessori education is child centered teaching which guides instructors to identify each child’s needs and create teaching environments and methods accordingly. Teachers do not enter classrooms with concrete lesson plans, but rather work with every student on his or her level. Classes are multicultural and include several age groups, giving the children “real-life experience” and showing them how to work together in a community.
Children are not pressed to exceed their ability, nor are they left behind, but encouraged to work at their own space. In one classroom, a three year old is learning the alphabet, while a child a few months older is reading chapter books. Students are given as much time as needed to master a skill and teacher are taught to identify the child’s inner need and create in individualized solutions most conducive to learning. All students who graduated from Athirai schools are now achieving great success in high school.
Athirai emphasizes the need for parents, teachers and children to work together in order for any education experience to be successful. Her logo is a constant reminder of the commitment shared by all three, as it displays a child in the middle with the parent and teacher on their side. Athirai says, “The parent, the teacher and the child should have input in the child’s education. It must be an equal partnership.”
Classrooms are designed with children from many ages working together. All the children learn how to mentor the younger ones and how to interact on various levels, which mimics the world outside school walls. The websites and Facebook pages are filled with enthusiastic reviews from satisfied parents. Athirai is an active philanthropist spending her time away from schools in serving the community. She looks forward to meeting parents and prospective student to discuss any additional questions they may have.