Education & Workforce Development and Environment

School founder traveled challenging road: Before starting Montessori Academy, Cain overcame loss of parents, dyslexia to earn engineering degree, MBA

June 5, 2006

Vivian Cain founded the Montessori Academy of Indianapolis five years ago, but for most of her life, she's been a walking billboard for people striving to overcome obstacles.

Cain, 36, operates the private school on the northwest side of Indianapolis. The academy, which Cain started with $40,000 of her personal savings, has grown to 100 students and could expand to include a second location. "When we first started, I opened and closed, and cleaned and cooked," said Cain, who serves as director. "I put in a lot of sweat equity. All of the profit went back into the school."

Her journey leading to a career in education is longer than the car trip from Indianapolis to her hometown of Little Rock, Ark., with a few breakdowns thrown in for good measure.

Some challenges still linger. But those close to Cain say the difficulties she has confronted are responsible for her successes.

As an 18-month-old toddler, Cain was virtually orphaned. Her mother died after suffering a stroke and her father, who remains unknown to Cain, was absent. The responsibility of raising her and her 13-year-old sister fell on their 21-year-old sister, Etta, who dropped out of college and launched the Mothers Helpers cleaning service to support her siblings.

Cain's recollection of her mother is a "blank slate" without memories or even photographs. But she credits her elder sister, whom she refers to as her mom, for instilling in her the value of an education.

Despite a lack of money, Cain attended Catholic schools and often was the only black student in her class. In third grade, she was diagnosed with having the reading disorder dyslexia.

For months, Cain spent three hours after school working on her phonetics, overenunciating words to help her reading and writing skills. She became an honor-roll student and ultimately earned an engineering degree from North Carolina A&T State University. Nanny and tutoring jobs helped pay her way through college.

"Because we grew up poor, education was a rite of passage to have choices and a better life," Cain said. "I have to work twice, three, four times as hard."

Engineering to education

She arrived in Indiana in 1994 to begin work as a mechanical and industrial engineer at Columbus-based Cummins Inc. She later worked at Hillenbrand Industries Inc. in Batesville but left in 1997 to study full time for an MBA degree at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Cain completed her MBA in 2000 with a triple major in international business, finance, and new venture and business development. As part of an internship, she spent a year in China doing consulting work.

During her graduate studies, in which it would take her days to write papers, Cain sought additional treatment at the Dyslexia Institute of Indiana Inc. in Indianapolis.

Her husband Cecil, whom she met through a personal ad she had placed in a newspaper, said his wife probably didn't understand the severity of her dyslexia until visiting the institute.

"For her to have achieved her engineering degree, her MBA and, of course, her Montessori credentials is a wonderful thing," he said. "She never gives in. Once she sinks her teeth into something, she either accomplishes it or will die trying."

That certainly held true in her will to open a private school. Cain used her thesis in graduate school as an opportunity to write a business and marketing plan for her academy that she launched in 2001.

Cain shared the historic house on Michigan Road with an antique dealer before purchasing the property in 2004. The academy became a member of the American Montessori Society in New York in 2003. That requires complying with academy standards and completing annual reports, among other requirements.

Before receiving the certification, Cain traveled to West Lafayette twice a week for three months to receive guidance from Maureen Northacker, owner of Children's House Montessori.

"Her sister worked so hard to make sure she had a good education, and she wanted to give that back to the community," Northacker said. "Her story is fascinating." The Montessori method

There are several Montessori schools in the Indianapolis area, but because the name is not trademarked, not all are AMS members, according to the society.

The Montessori way of learning follows a nearly 100-year-old method developed by Maria Montessori, the first female doctor in Italy. More than 1,100 schools nationwide are certified to teach the model that lets children progress at their own pace by promoting individual creativity over group activity.

Cain's school, for instance, accepts children ages 1 through 9. For the younger kids, the setting acts as child care. There are two classes of children ages 6 through 9 that constitute first- through third-grade learning. The students, however, are not separated, encouraging younger students to work beyond their capabilities when possible. At the other end of the spectrum, the setting allows children who may have fallen behind to still learn without being separated from their peers.

The academy has 13 staff members, including teachers from France, India, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Instructors must have a bachelor's degree and certification from the AMS. The students have an array of ethnic backgrounds, to reflect the school's focus on an international learning environment.

Cost for the year-round curriculum ranges from $395 to $775 a month. Hours are 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., but the building is open longer to accommodate working parents.

Cain has a partnership with the three Montessori academies operated by Indianapolis Public Schools, which her students can transfer to and attend through eighth grade.

With enrollment at Cain's academy hovering around 100, and space at a premium, she is beginning to consider adding a second location.

The potential growth makes what she has already accomplished all the more impressive to José Lusende, a Cain family friend and director of resource development at the Indiana Minority Health Coalition Inc.

"Once you have lived some tragic and difficult situations in your life, and you feel you don't want to go back there," he said, "you will keep pushing to go where you want to be."
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