Students don’t have to sit still in desks to learn

Learning differences in children, when addressed early, can make the difference in a child’s future educational success. 

Holy Rosary School Uptown, a school designed to address the needs of students with learning difficulties, is opening its doors to even younger students this year with a new Montessori-based Early Childhood Education program for potty-trained pre-kindergarten students ages 3 to 5.

Two experienced early childhood education teachers – Cindi Johnson, who has been at Holy Rosary since 2009, and Lindy Denham who has more than 20 years and is certified in Montessori teaching – lead the Montessori team.

They are assisted by Colleen Judge, a former Holy Rosary student.

Principal Cheryl Orillion said parents of preschool children who have had an applied behavior analysis (ABA) have sought her help in finding a school since she has been principal the past two years.

“Because of my experience with Montessori (15 years at Sacred Heart of Jesus in Norco), we knew we could help many kids on the (autism) spectrum with hands-on Montessori instruction,” Orillion said. “We could see the difference in kids with severe learning disorders. They were able to function in the classroom when they moved on from Montessori.” 

Montessori learning is child-initiated and adheres to the philosophy that every child is gifted and a gift to the teacher. Founder Maria Montessori emphasized not forgetting the simple things in education because it is the simple things that build and let the child learn bigger things, Orillion said.

Let the child lead 

“The child teaches us how they learn, and every child is different and unique,” Denham said.

“One of the things I think (will help is that) the child is actually connecting and understanding at a higher order of thinking from the hand to the brain and back to the hand in writing it,” Johnson said. “I can see what the older kids are missing – that hands-on approach that connects to learning, especially those kids on the (autism) spectrum.” 

Students develop self-discipline and independence with purpose, safety and responsibility and build a foundation for the real world through six program components: practical life skills (pouring, measuring, matching), sensorial, math and geometry, science and reading. They complete tasks at their own speed and build classroom skills under the eye of a facilitator.

“The children have an innate interest to learn,” Denham said, and learning begins the minute they walk in the classroom. “It’s through working with their hands that they are learning.”

Children are allowed to make mistakes and self-correct. “They figure out how to do it and do it until they get it right,” Orillion said. “Kids are so engrossed in what they are doing … that they don’t realize they are learning math skills or English skills.”

“You can’t put kids in a box, so Montessori is the perfect program,” Orillion said. She hopes this curriculum, started at a young age, will make it easier in later years for children with learning differences because developmental skills will be in place.

She said the program would start off small – fewer than 10 students in the first year with flexible days and times. 

“We will keep the numbers low to ensure we can help a child,” she said. “Some may not be ready for a full day … We will deal with a child’s individual needs.”

Already in place at Holy Rosary is a sensory room where students can learn by touching and feeling objects. An Imagination Playground with large foam blocks will be incorporated.

Sensory learning

Orillion said experienced and knowledgeable teachers and grant money from the Greater Protestant Orphanage Association to buy Montessori materials, music instruments, programs on iPads, sensory materials, etc., made the program possible. 

“The children are learning visual and tactile discrimination,” Johnson said. “They are learning to perceive differences and developing finer and finer perception, which allows them to have intelligence about the world around them. They are learning height, depth, width, length, color, texture, sound, pressure, and it teaches them independence because it teaches them how to care for themselves and the world around them.”      

Holy Rosary Academy first opened in 1996 to help middle-school boys with learning challenges. Girls were added in 2000. High school acceptance began in 2005 on the former campus of St. Lawrence the Martyr School in Metairie. After Hurricane Katrina, the school returned to Holy Rosary Parish on Esplanade Avenue. The move to its current Uptown campus was made in 2012.

Teachers in other grades, such as Anna Talley who teaches third and fourth grade, said Montessori math manipulatives benefit students with sensory needs.

“I think it will help them immensely to visualize and make sense of it, not just memorizing it rotely, but understanding the concepts,” she said.

“Difficulty doesn’t go away,” Orillion said. “We try to build on skills … the same hands-on skills they need (in the preschool). We want these materials to help the students in second, third and fourth grade … and make school easier for them.”

Holy Rosary is located at 2437 Jena St. in New Orleans. Call 482-7173 or visit

Christine Bordelon can be reached at 

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