Transforming Early Childhood Education: MAICC’s Approach to Culturally Rooted Learning

The Montessori American Indian Childcare Center (MAICC) is tucked away in a brown brick building in St. Paul’s Southern Hayden Heights neighborhood. It is the only culturally based Montessori-credentialed preschool in the city serving American Indian children.

MAICC is a testament to the importance of multi-generational learning rooted in Indigenous practices, linking cultural and language preservation with community leadership and early learning access. MAICC became a new grantee and partner of the Mortenson Family Foundation in 2023, and we’re proud to support the organizations’ vision of being the premier model of early childhood opportunity for the American Indian community.

On January 25, 2024, Rabya Hassen, the community relationship officer for the Foundation’s Expanding Opportunities for Children and Families grant program area, visited MAICC. We’ll recap the school’s crucial work, give an inside look into its community-centered approach to education, and overview its plans for the future.

From the Start

Established in 2014, MAICC has a self-directed, experiential approach to early childhood education. As an indigenized early learning environment, MAICC helps children ages 3 to 6 create a strong basis of cultural self-awareness and language learning, including the Ojibwe and D/Lakota languages, while gaining a solid educational foundation with traditional Montessori teachings.

“MAICC’s mission is significant and intended to address the early childhood needs and academic achievement of American Indian children through revitalizing language and culture,” says LaVon Lee, the organization’s leadership director. LaVon is also Lakota from the Pine Ridge reservation.

Like other Montessori schools, the preschool prioritizes children’s natural interests and activities, preparing them for math and reading while exposing them to practical life skills and sensorial experiences. Montessori teaching is a natural application of Indigenous practices, since children learn by doing, according to MAICC.

“MAICC is guided by seven core cultural values: love, respect, humility, wisdom, truth, courage, and honesty,” says founder and primary guide Janice LaFloe. These values guide the organization’s staff and the Board of Directors in their work with children, parents, and each other, as well as their broader community.

MAICC’s guiding values are intentionally designed to preserve American Indian heritage, which is a tool for addressing the academic achievement gap faced by American Indian children. By providing culturally affirming education, MAICC helps children embrace their identity and heritage with pride, laying a strong foundation for their future success.

On Site

Rabya, the Foundation’s community relationship officer for its Expanding Opportunities grant program, visited MAICC earlier this year. Upon entering the building, she was greeted by the comfortable atmosphere and cultural ambiance the organization has intentionally curated in its building. Large windows shined natural light into the spacious classrooms, and the walls were painted with vibrant colors and decorated with art from American Indian artists.

“They intentionally curated a space that is a warm and welcoming environment for the kiddos,” Rabya says. Janice and LaVon, accompanied by Ojibwe from the Turtle Mountain Reservation and parent and early learning coordinator Terri Storm, showed Rabya around the building. She says the students were just as welcoming as the adults when they approached her and confidently and curiously engaged in conversations.

MAICC considers each of its students wakanyeja, which translates to “sacred child” in the Lakota language. The organization holds itself to high standards of accountability for the care and education of its children.

MAICC prioritizes a multi-generational approach to learning by involving parents and the broader community in its programming. For example, its Prenatal to Three Family Nest (P23) Program supports families before they have a newborn and up to the time that child turns three. The program shares information with parents on child development, Montessori education, and Indigenous parenting, and helps families access developmentally appropriate materials and support with parent workshops, parent-child playgroups, and one-on-one support. Additionally, MAICC’s Economic Mobility Hub serves families holistically, providing culturally responsive  services to help them develop their own solutions to reach their goals and achieve their hopes and dreams. MAICC’s lending library of quality, developmentally specific Montessori materials is also available to families involved with the school.

“MAICC is guided by its traditional kinship structure where everyone has a role that spans the generations,” Janice says.

Growing Up

As MAICC evolves, it continues to preserve its commitment to authenticity and cultural relevance for American Indian families.

While the organization is leasing its current space, it has plans to relocate and expand. This relocation will allow for a permanent location that can be outfitted to meet the organization’s growing needs, including the opportunity to develop a language immersion program in the future. In reflecting on the power of culturally relevant education and a community-directed pre-school, MAICC is a symbol of opportunity and quality education for generations to come.

“We are excited to relocate to our new space, beginning a second decade of welcoming children to a quality early learning opportunity,” say Janice and LaVon.