In Memoriam: Sandi McDonald-West
On March 11, 2023, lifelong AMS member and early Montessori trailblazer, Sandi McDonald-West passed away at the age of 92. She began her career in Montessori Education in the 1960s and touched the lives of thousands in the United States and around the world.
Sandi was born in Lowell, MA, on May 8, 1930, to Walter MacLean and Celina Lalime MacLean. She grew up with one sister (Persis McClellan Sterling) and prioritized her education, graduating from high school at age 16 and college at age 20. She received her BA from DePaul University (1951), MA from Fairleigh Dickinson University (1966), and MEd from North Texas State University (1980).
In time, she married and had five children: Todd, Brooke, Ned, Reid, and Heather. Her family would grow to include six grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
In the early years of her marriage while raising five children, Sandi also volunteered as a nurse’s aide at local hospitals and was active in the Junior Women’s League but her life would completely change when she first learned about Montessori.
Introduction to Montessori
Living outside of Cleveland, OH, Sandi first heard about Montessori while working in the public schools. In a recording from the AMS Archives, Sandi explains: “I was a speech pathologist and at that time in the public schools, they didn’t know what a speech pathologist did. They asked me to work with some children in second and third grade who hadn’t learned how to read.”
Sandi called her mother who was a reading specialist and her mother suggested that she use Montessori Materials. She sent Sandi the Movable Alphabet and Sandpaper Letters and within no time, Sandi’s children were reading.
“The school thought I was a miracle worker,” Sandi recalls.
It wasn’t long before Montessori Education would become Sandi’s life’s work. Sandi was living outside of Cleveland and, at the time, the only Montessori school was in downtown Cleveland and was run by Mary Ruffing. That was an hour and a half from where Sandi lived. With support from Mary Ruffing and a supportive group of parents, Sandi started the Montessori School of Berea, Ohio. They formed a nonprofit organization and had twenty five students in their first year (1968). They hired a Montessori trained educator and Sandi’s youngest daughter, Heather, attended the school. Heather would go on to become a Montessori teacher and teacher trainer.
Sandi reflects fondly on the support of Mary Ruffing, her husband James (who would serve as the president of AMS from 1963 to 1969), and the community who supported this new school at a time when many people in Cleveland were not familiar with Montessori education.
Training with Nancy
Three years after the school was founded, Sandi enrolled in Montessori training in Teaneck, NJ with Nancy McCormick Rambush. The year was 1966. There were around 60 to 70 students who gathered at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Many early AMS leaders took part in this training including Maria Gravel, Virginia Varga, Marlene Barron, and Pamela Rigg.
After the training was completed, Sandi returned and began working at Hudson Montessori School. In the years since she founded her school in Berea, four more Montessori schools were formed in the greater Cleveland area.
Mary Ruffing saw these pockets of Montessori schools and, with Nancy’s blessing, formed the Northern Ohio Montessori Association as a local association for Montessori teachers and administrators. Mary was the first president. Sandi was the second.
Sandi’s Montessori career spans decades and she worked with schools across Ohio, Texas, and Oklahoma. In 1971, Sandi became the head of the lower school at The Selwyn School in Denton, TX. She would leave Selwyn in 1983 and spend four years as the headmaster and teacher at Cimarron School in Enid, OK. In 1987, she would return to Texas in Corpus Christi and serve two years as a teacher and consultant at Corpus Christi Montessori School.
From 1989 to 1995 she worked at Azlann Montessori School in Denton, TX, and from 1994 to 2001 at Highland Meadow Montessori Academy in Southlake, TX. In 2001, she began consulting for Montessori schools and public schools around the country.
Southwest Montessori Teacher Training Program
Sandi McDonald-West began the Southwestern Montessori Teacher Training Program as a nonprofit organization in 1974. As the head of the Selwyn School in Denton she needed trained teachers. Nancy McCormick Rambush encouraged her to give workshops and begin the training program. She set this program up as the first Mobile Montessori Teacher Training Program in the United States.
In 1974, she began making printed materials for Montessori classrooms. She sold these materials all over the world. She continued this throughout the 1990s.
In 1979 and in 1982, Sandi McDonald-West traveled to Japan as a guest of the Japanese Montessori Society and traveled to over ten cities giving lectures on Montessori Education to large audiences. In 2013, her program trained over eighty Montessori teachers for the Hammond and Roseland, Louisiana public schools. In 1985, she started the first Montessori Master’s Degree Program at North Texas State University in Denton, TX. Over the years she trained more than a thousand teachers.
In 1978, the American Montessori Society teacher education programs met in Seattle, WA to begin working on the idea of accrediting Montessori teachers. In 1986, AMS invited other Montessori teacher training programs to work with them on this project. Over time, teacher education programs formed the first accreditation committee for Montessori teacher education. By 1991, Montessori programs came together in San Diego with ninety-one teacher trainers and set the foundation for the training of Montessori teachers. In 1992, the first officers were elected and the first Commission on Accreditation was established.
As the Petition for the Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education was being prepared to be presented to the United States Department of Education, Sandi McDonald-West took on the arduous task of completing the final draft of the Petition for Accreditation. This was an eight month project. Finally, thirteen Montessorians went to the Department of Education meeting in Washington, D.C. Four were selected to present the Petition. Sandi was among the four.
Sandi McDonald-West dedicated herself to this professional organization for many years during its formation. She was elected chair of the MACTE Commission in 1992. Upon completing two terms on the MACTE Commission she was awarded chair emeritus by her peers in 1997.
Sandi has been a member of the American Montessori Society since 1967; of the North American Montessori Teachers Association since 1970; and of the Association Montessori International since 1974. In 2000, the American Montessori Society honored her with the Pioneer in Montessori Award. In 2012, MACTE honored Sandi McDonald-West during the Wisdom of the Elders program. Sandi McDonald-West has been listed as a noteworthy Headmaster and Consultant by Marquis Who’s Who.
It is impossible to overstate the way Sandi’s work as an early Montessori leader in the United States transformed not just the students in her classrooms and schools but in the wider Montessori community.
Sandi McDonald-West dedicated her life to Montessori Education. Not only did she practice the philosophy in work, she lived the philosophy in life. She touched so many lives and we are all the better for it. She is a true Montessori legacy.
Learn more about Sandi’s life in these recordings from the AMS Archives.
About the Author
Elizabeth Buechele (she/her) is the senior manager of communication and development at the American Montessori Society. She is passionate about equitable education, youth leadership, and storytelling. Contact her at email@example.com.
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The opinions expressed in Montessori Life are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of AMS.