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"Jan is going to catch you running," a young Bennett Park Montessori pupil sternly warns her classmate, who quickly stops in his tracks when he sees Principal Jan Dombkowski approaching.

The next thing that happens may not reflect the way some recall being disciplined in elementary school. There is no warning of banishment to a dark classroom corner or after-school detention. Instead, Dombkowski calmly instructs the pupil to proceed quietly to his destination. Without hesitation, he makes an about-face and walks quietly to a lesson in Italian.

Dombkowski and Assistant Principal Josephine Cross have co-navigated the halls of Bennett Park Montessori School for 14 years, and this year they will retire together.

Dombkowski says she will miss her daily interactions with the children the most.

"The children call us by our first names here. There is no power struggle, just respect," said Dombkowski. "When you respect a child and make them feel positive, they can go on to change the world."

The City of Buffalo recently declared Friday as Bennett Park Montessori Day.

Beginning at 10 a.m., pupils and faculty will celebrate the school's 25th anniversary with a parade, followed by a rededication to peace and a reinstallation of the school's "peace pole." The eight-foot metal pole has the inscription "May peace prevail on earth" in eight languages.

Dombkowski and Cross came to the school as members of its original group of teachers in 1977. That was shortly after U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin found the city school system guilty of permitting racially segregated public schools.

"The judge (Curtin) had not ordered desegregation yet," Dombkowski said, "but we opened our doors anyway. We were part of the creation of schools started to bring about multicultural integration."

Educated at Buffalo State College, Dombkowski started her teaching career in School 22, where the student body was predominantly white.

Cross, who had taught for six years at School 90, came to Bennett Park Montessori from the other side of the spectrum and says it took some time to get used to a diverse setting after teaching in an all-minority classroom.

Bennett Park and other Montessori schools use the educational concepts of Maria Montessori, which stress that children are capable of teaching themselves. There are no placement tests or report cards, and children are given time to understand subjects at their own speed.

"When I first started as an intern, I remember local Montessori trainer Elaine Berman telling all of us that working in Montessori was going to be a life-transforming experience," said Dombkowski. "At first we didn't understand what that meant, but now, in hindsight, I can honestly say that it has made a tremendous difference in my life."


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