Guitar in hand and laptop open, Wesley Hickman, 15, led a handful of older ladies in songs from an earlier generation.
At another table, Trent McMullen, also 15, played a matching game using leaf shapes and their technical names with Hulda Schmid, 100.
The school, founded in 2010, opened in the lower level of First United Methodist Church with 16 students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. The school later moved classes to Underwood Hills Presbyterian Church.
This fall, it moved again to a building near 72nd Street and West Center Road that was finished to suit the school.
Upstairs is a Montessori program for children ages 18 months through six years, operated by Montessori Educational Centers Inc.
“This is a space of our own,” said Alice Roberts, one of two founding teachers at the school.
A number of public and private schools in Nebraska and Iowa offer Montessori programs for elementary students. The Millard Public Schools offers a Montessori middle school program.
Roberts and Tim Fickenscher, MISP's other founding teacher, taught in Millard Central Middle School's Montessori program before starting the new school.
But MISP is the first Montessori in Nebraska to move into high school. It will graduate its first student this year.
— Julie Anderson
The sight of youths interacting with elders isn't new at Hillcrest Mable Rose in Bellevue. For the past two years, students from the Montessori International School of the Plains have been coming every Friday to study alongside the assisted-living center's residents.
But this year, the partnership has expanded, as has the school itself.
Launched with 16 students in a church basement in 2010, the only known Montessori program in Nebraska and Iowa to go through high school now enrolls 29 and has moved to a new building near 72nd Street and West Center Road.
The students and their teachers this year will be collaborating with Mable Rose's staff on a study examining whether some of the Montessori methods they use in school — from allowing a choice of activities to breaking down tasks into steps — can benefit people with dementia.
Anna Fisher, Hillcrest Health Services' education director, said the program provides the adults a chance to connect socially and to engage in meaningful activities.
“Just because you have dementia or a kind of cognitive impairment doesn't mean you stop learning,” said Fisher, a certified dementia practitioner and president of the school's board. The difference is that people with such impairments can no longer initiate activities. So caregivers have to provide prompts.
Alice Roberts, one of the school's two founding teachers, said students benefit by knowing there are other adults interested in their success.
At the same time, they're learning compassion and caring and how to create lessons and adapt them to the needs of the adults they're working with. They get hands-on experience working with the adult professionals on the center's staff as well as lessons in psychology and brain development.
“Adolescents want to be important and helpful,” she said.
In the past, the Montessori students have studied alongside Mable Rose's assisted living residents. This year, they're working largely with clients coming in for the center's adult day services and with residents in its memory support units.
On Fridays, students first meet to plan activities and then break into groups and set up stations with different activities.
Recently, one group started with an activity that involved drawing and coloring different countries' flags. Fisher said one focus is on gross and fine motor skills, including the thumb and forefinger “pincer grip” important to dressing and eating independently.
But Tim Fickenscher, the school's other founding teacher, said any new learning creates brain growth. Even sitting and talking with students about their experiences stimulates the brain.
McMullen, for example, chatted with centenarian Schmid about her early life as they played their game.
“It's my favorite thing to do,” the teen said of his Fridays at Mable Rose. “It's the highlight of my week.”
Participants were free to move on to other stations. The music station Hickman led was particularly popular. While general memory declines first, Fisher said, research has shown that music is retained longer. Playing songs from the past can stimulate those memories.
Hickman, who's in his second year at the school, said he's enjoyed learning from the elders. Last year, he got to study World War II with people who had lived through it. One woman told him about making blackout curtains for her windows. She'd lived in Europe, where the curtains were used to minimize bombing targets.
“It's putting the meaning into learning,” he said. “And it's fun, too.”
This year, he said, students and senior citizens are focusing on more hands-on activities.
“A lot of leadership skills get built here,” he said, because the students are creating lessons and leading the activities.
Other skills are built, too. In March, McMullen and Ella Dohrmann, 14, joined Fisher in speaking at a dementia care conference held by the Alzheimer's Association's Midlands Chapter in Omaha about approaches to dementia care that don't rely on medication.
Danielle Dohrmann, mom of Ella and two other students at the school, said the interaction exposes young people to the aging process and builds compassion. With the size of the nation's baby boom generation, she said, that can only help them in the long run.
The notion behind using Montessori-based methods with people with dementia comes from the work of Cameron Camp, a psychologist and director of research and development at the Center for Applied Research in Dementia in Solon, Ohio.
Camp, who is consulting with the local researchers, said the Montessori-based approach emphasizes respect, dignity and equality and focuses on tapping people's abilities, whatever they are at the time, to help them learn.
With Montessori, an educational approach used worldwide, students of different ages work together and independently. They get a say in what they learn. They also participate in more hands-on activities and exploration than in many traditional classrooms.
Montessori approaches include principles from rehabilitation and occupational therapy, such as breaking tasks down into steps and using repetition.
But while such therapies typically are used during set sessions or to address specific issues, the Montessori-based approaches can be used throughout the day to help people function more effectively.
Fisher, who has a doctorate in health administration, said the researchers in particular are looking to see whether certain types of activities provide more stimulation than others.
Next March, the researchers and the teachers are scheduled to present what they've learned at the American Montessori Society's conference in Dallas.
“We'd like to build this as a foundation for others to follow,” she said.