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Farming a Dream

By France Griggs Sloat

It’s less than a quarter of a mile from the highway, up the gravel road and over the railroad tracks to Elaine May’s world. To the untrained eye, the 92-acre spread where she lives and works looks like nothing more than a farm.

A hefty male billy goat named Romeo trots up to greet visitors from a grassy pasture next to the old black tobacco barn that’s now a home for animals. His right horn twists around and under, the result of a botched bobbing attempt when he was a kid. Always the lover, Romeo pushes his nose through the fence seeking attention, but his pungent odor precedes him.

To May, however, the site is more than it appears. A lot more. It is the place of her dreams. Since entering Xavier’s Montessori education program in 1991, May’s been dreaming of opening her own high school—one that fulfills the embodiment of Maria Montessori’s ideals. The Italian doctor, who founded the popular teaching method, envisioned teenagers spending their turbulent junior high years doing more farmwork and less academics.

“[Montessori] didn’t have the chance in her life to implement that theory,” May says, “but we have the land and incredible people at Xavier to help.”

May, who earned a master’s degree in education in 1992, and her husband, Michael, bought 92 acres in Sardinia, about an hour east of Cincinnati, in 1991. They renovated the 100-year-old farmhouse and opened a summer camp in 1997 and Montessori pre-school and kindergarten in 1999.

Next year, they will add a first-grade class. Their goal is to add a grade each year and open the Erdkinder (earth children) School for grades 7-12 within eight years.

As director, May is busy enough now with the little school, which their two children, Samuel and Levi, attend along with 20 others. Two rooms in the house serve as Montessori classrooms and summer bunkhouses. The farm animals are part of the school’s curriculum year-round.

“To learn that these animals depend on the children to survive promotes self-reliance, independence and responsibility,” May says. “We have rabbits for snuggling and ducks to collect their eggs, goats to milk and a slew of baby goats they bottle feed.”

At the moment, May is sitting inside the barn tending a young mother goat that has just delivered her first set of twins, one white, one black. May works with the newborns, cleaning the smaller one and helping it find its mother’s milk bag. In a back paddock, four females graze with their babies. May has 32 goats in all. There’s also a horse and a herd of 12 donkeys and foals. The only thing missing are the children, but they will return soon.

Their first lesson? Don’t pet the smelly billy.

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