Sarah Ross founded a school in the Dominican Republic three years ago. (Leader photo/JOHN EBY)

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Dowagiac graduate grows school in Dominican Republic

Published 9:06pm Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Montessori school Sarah Ross founded three years ago in the Dominican Republic is growing, adding an Infants, Toddlers and Twos program in October.

“It’s growing, but not too fast or too big,” Ross said Monday at Caruso’s.

Her vision is to replicate this sustainable model throughout the country, “but I don’t want to go too fast and spiral out of control.”

“Three-year-olds when I first opened the school are now 7. We couldn’t bear to say goodbye, but I knew it was not feasible to open two new programs.”

A volunteer helps with 7-year-olds two mornings a week. There are plans for goats and a store to go along with its garden’s profitable produce.

A second building on the property where she used to live is being utilized, but “we don’t aspire to be huge in numbers,” she said. “We aspire to make a huge difference with the children.”

Since the school opened in November 2009, its team has educated more than 150 children, parents and teachers.

There is another certified teacher, from Holland, Mich., but she’s going to Guatemala at the end of January. A Dominican parent is close to Montessori certification.

In all, there are a dozen adults — five for 0-3, three for 3-6, one for 7 and three administrators, including Ross’s assistant and a development coordinator.

It costs $250 a month to sponsor a teacher, $100 for a child and $40 for a parent.

The school encourages teachers and volunteers to further education by making scholarships available and covering associated costs to attend Montessori certification courses, continuing education workshops and high school, university and English classes.

A nurse from England volunteers 10 hours a week, meeting medical needs which crop up during home visits.

 Garden of Eden in ‘The Swamp’

Ross, 38, a 1992 Union High graduate and the youngest of Harvey and Janet Ross’s three children, has been here for Christmas, sledding with her 19-month-old son, Felix, who will be trilingual in English, Spanish and German.

Her Austrian husband, Helmut, is an auto mechanic with a garage near 3 Mariposas on the north shore in the La Cienaga neighborhood (“The Swamp”) of Cabarete.

The name in Spanish means “three butterflies,” encompassing training students, parents and teachers.

Sarah spent a summer in Switzerland and traveled to Nigeria, Africa, through Rotary and St. Denys Foundation, which became the school’s major benefactor.

Individuals such as Bill and Diana Grabemeyer and John and Andrea Rosevelt, contribute, too.

“Donors are a big part of who we’ve become,” she said, “not just Dowagiac, but Wisconsin, my sister’s church which brings 30 youth for a week of community service projects, MSU — this spring will be its third service learning trip — and, next year, University of Michigan is interested in coming.”

 Boston bringing teaching store

“Out of 40 organizations around the world, we were chosen to receive help from Nourish International. This particular chapter is from Boston University. They aspire to fundraise $8,000 to $10,000 for our school store. Parents and older children would learn business skills, marketing and math. Parents would take a percentage of the income for their family. A small percentage would go to maintaining the school. Parents are learning to make pillowcase dresses on donated sewing machines,” Ross said.

Her mother is Dowagiac’s retired school nurse. Her parents make frequent mission trips, including New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Sister Katie, who lives in Grand Rapids, followed her mother into nursing. She has four sons with Troy Silvernale and delivered more than 700 babies as a midwife.

Brother John, an attorney, has four children with Celeste.

Sarah first went her senior year at Michigan State University in 1997 to learn Spanish living with a local family.

She taught English as a second language three years in Wyoming, Mich.

But she “missed the Dominican Republic’s culture and warm weather, so I went back and worked for a large non-profit for almost five years doing teacher training and working with volunteers who came down to help in the various schools.”

Her “love for different cultures and languages” she traces to summers working for Dowagiac’s migrant program at Sister Lakes Elementary, where she attended grade school.

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