Dowagiac native Sarah Ludwig-Ross, founder of a Dominican Republic Montessori school where 200 people celebrated its 10th anniversary Nov. 16, spoke to Natalie Anagnos’ Southwestern Michigan College Spanish students Nov. 21.
Ludwig-Ross, 45, of Cabarete, graduated from Dowagiac Union High School in 1992 but has lived almost half her life — 20 years — in the Caribbean country which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.
Three Mariposas, which has grown from her and 11 students to 50 students and 17 paid staff, is near the north shore known for beaches and resorts. She married Helmut, from Vienna, Austria, who runs an adventure company. Their 8-year-old son, Felix, is trilingual, speaking English, Spanish and German.
At no time during the Great Recession does quitting your job at a non-profit to start a school on a shoestring sound like a good idea. That’s certainly not the advice film director Spike Lee gave her at the New Orleans conference where she decided, to quote Lee’s old Mars Blackmon Air Jordan commercials for Nike, to “Just Do It.”
The name of the school means “three butterflies” in Spanish, encompassing training students, parents and teachers. Early on, the youngest of Harvey and Janet Ross’s three children felt pulled by adventure and craved commingled cultures, though she belatedly learned Spanish after French. She spent a summer in Switzerland and traveled to Lagos, Nigeria, with a Rotary team conducting polio immunizations.
Ludwig-Ross first went in 1997, her senior year at Michigan State University, to learn Spanish by living with a local family for four months. After finishing her MSU teaching degree, Ross taught English as a second language for three years in Wyoming, Mich. She had also worked a few summers for Dowagiac’s migrant program based at Sister Lakes Elementary, where she attended grade school.
The Dominican Republic “is a really neat place,” she said. “I’ve lived there on three different occasions. It kept pulling me back. Sixty percent of our students live in poverty and earn scholarships. They don’t pay a cent, but their parents pay with time. Forty percent are from all over the world and pay tuition. We opened it up this year to partial scholarships for the middle class.
“We have a half-day program, 8:15-12:30, and a full-day program for which we charge $535 that goes until 3 and includes excursions, materials and food. All of our children, no matter which program, get at least one snack and lunch because education and nutrition go hand-in-hand. Montessori is hands-on because we want our children, ages 1-9, to be independent. They learn how to set the table, sweep and do the dishes.
“When I started, I was secretary, fund developer, janitor, everything,” said Ludwig-Ross, who has a master’s degree in education. When she’s fundraising, she regrets not making more of an effort to study business.
“Part of Montessori is giving back to the community. When our community flooded,” Ludwig-Ross said, “we collected and distributed clothes and food. We go on excursions and have a lovely library so they can check out books.”
“Even if you’re struggling,” she told students, “I urge you to continue learning Spanish. It opened so many doors for me. You’re going places if you can speak two languages.”
Ranee Conley, SMC Early Childhood Education instructor and program director held an exploratory meeting with Ludwig-Ross.
“I am in the process of looking across all the courses in the program and updating, especially considering changes being made at the state level for teacher certification, including the expected addition of a birth-to-kindergarten certificate,” Conley said. “This is the perfect time for me to consider how I might intentionally add an ongoing connection to the Montessori school. I am working on other connections as well to deepen student experiences and broaden SMC’s networks.”