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Montessori School takes its own unique approach to learning

By Clay Wilson

Nine-year-old Dakota Fanning of Conyers has made a place for herself in Hollywood.

She's a star of such feature films as "I am Sam," "Uptown Girls" and the upcoming "The Cat in the Hat" alongside such big names as Alec Baldwin, Sean Penn, Mike Myers and Brittany Murphy.

But Fanning started her career – her educational career, at least – the tutelage of Henry County Montessori teacher Siromi Binkley.

"Every time I see her on screen, the tears come into my eyes," said Binkley.

Binkley, 59, is director of the Meadowlands Montessori School in McDonough. She had Fanning as a student in the late 1990s, when Binkley was director of the Morrow Montessori School.

Montessori is an educational method named after early 20th Century Italian physician Maria Montessori. Montessori schools emphasize hands-on learning grounded in a child's senses, and they also allow children to learn at their own pace.

At the Meadowlands School on Thursday, Shailyn Moore and Andrew Moore (no relation), both 5, worked on adding four-digit numbers. They worked with tiles representing thousands, hundreds, tens and ones. Within just a few minutes, they had the answers to problems that might stump children older than themselves.

"Not just because someone said one plus one is two, they know why one plus one is two," said Binkley in explaining why she thinks the Montessori method is so effective in helping children learn.

Binkley seems to be a staunch believer in the method, having devoted nearly 37 years of her life to teaching it.

Educated in Sri Lanka, Binkley came to the U.S. in 1966 to take a job at the Ashton Hall school in north Atlanta. She opened her own school, Chillun Hill Montessori in Chamblee, before returning briefly to Sri Lanka in 1979.

She came back to teaching in 1980 at the four-year-old Morrow Montessori School, becoming the school's director in 1983. In 1998, after the building the school was leasing in Clayton County was sold, the school moved into the Ga. Highway 81 facilities of Cornerstone Bible Church.

The school changed its name to Meadowlands Montessori School in 2000.

"This is my life. I love teaching," Binkley said.

But Binkley wasn't the only one at Meadowlands who showed enthusiasm for Montessori learning.

"It's been proven that it just works," said Heather Kannal. "I'm amazed at how much my older son has learned being here. He's adding, subtracting and starting to read, and he's only 4-and-a-half."

Besides having two children at Meadowlands, Kannal also teaches the school's new toddler class, which just started this year.

A volunteer aide to Binkley last year, Kannal said, "Siromi and I have a good relationship, and we both thought a toddler program was needed."

With the addition of the program, the school has an age range of 1-and-a-half to 6-and-a-half years old.

On Thursday morning some potential clients were inspecting the school. Bhavani and Srinivas Mahankali said they just moved to Henry County from Queens, N.Y. A nephrologist, Bhavani Mahankali said it is important to her for her kids to get a solid education.

She said she found out about Meadwolands from a friend in Henry County.

"She told us that her daughter learned a lot," Mahankali said. "She could see the difference."

Currently the school has 25 pre-school students and four toddlers. It has two teachers, Binkley and Kannal, and an aide. Binkley is certified by American Montessori Internationale (and on the AMI certifying commission), and she said she plans to send Kannal to Montessori training classes soon.

She also said she is looking for another building whose yard she can fence off to meet one of the state requirements for running a daycare. The school's only problem, she said, is that it doesn't have a daycare program, which discourages some working parents from enrolling their children.

Nevertheless, Binkley has big plans for the school. Not only does she want to open a daycare, but she wants to start an elementary program for children from 6 to 9 years old.

And it seems likely that she will be there for any changes the school might see.

"I'm sure probably until the day I die I'll be teaching," she said. " ... I love to see the children learn."