FOR MORE THAN 30 years, Montessori Genesis II has been the little school that could. And sometimes, as the school's brochure says, it has been "the miracle in West Philadelphia."

Founded in 1976 by 16 low-income families, the school (also known as MGII) has sent many of its graduates on to top public schools, including Masterman and the Girard Academic Music Program.

"We also have had kids that test and get scholarships into some of the best private day schools in the Delaware Valley," said Eleanor Childs, a teacher and the director of the school, at 36th Street and Haverford Avenue, in Mantua.

But the economic downturn and competition from charter schools have put a strain on MGII.

"We are struggling tooth and nail," said Cynthia Pierce, a board member and a founder of the school. "After all these years, parents just don't have the money for private schools."

"Years ago, there weren't many charter schools, and there were fewer subsidized private-school programs," said Childs, who came to MGII 26 years ago.

Many of the school's pupils have gone on to graduate from Shipley, Agnes Irwin, Gladwyne Montessori and Friends Central, she said.

Pierce said that she knows firsthand the value of MGII.

Her youngest son, Dammun Pierce, was in the first class of 3-year-olds, 33 years ago. Today, he is an osteopathic physician specializing in obstetrics and gynecology in Hilton Head Island, S.C. (See "A Success Story," at left.)

Neither Cynthia Pierce nor her husband went to college, she said.

"He was just a little boy from North Philadelphia back then, but now he is a doctor," Pierce said, proudly.

Pierce credited MGII with giving her son the foundation he needed to compete at the Shipley School, a private school in Bryn Mawr, Montgomery County.

"They exposed them to so much," she said of MGII. "They went camping, and to all the museums. They just taught them they were capable of handling any situation."

Currently, MGII has 42 children in three classrooms: A primary class for ages 2.7 years to 6; a combined first and second grade for 6-to-8-year-olds; and a combined third and fourth grade for 8-to-10-year-olds.

Childs said that only the primary class provides a complete Montessori education.

"The rest of the classes are influenced by the Montessori method," she said. That method encourages children to work independently.

Enrollment is up this year from the 37 students in the 2007-08 school term. Childs said that the school can accommodate as many as 54 children.

Childs, the director, and Jean Mitchell, the administrator, jointly run the school on the second floor of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church.

It is a predominantly African-American school, but has always accepted children of other ethnic groups.

Childs noted that the economy has caused many regular donors to drastically cut back on gifts in recent years.

Still, the school presses on - even though Childs and Mitchell are going without pay at a time when some charter-school executives are paying themselves as much as $190,000 a year, according to federal tax records.

During a recent visit to MGII, two preschoolers already were reading. Teacher Tanya Brown said the parents of the 3-year-old were surprised she had taught him to read.

"That's because we don't hold a child back if they're ready to go forward," Brown said.

She asked the boy, Ethan, and a 5-year-old girl, Zuri, to read aloud from a book.

In Childs' first-and-second-grade class, children were learning math with little green cubes on a board.

They added 23 plus 9 by putting two rows of 10 cubes in the 10s' place and three cubes in the 1s' place on top. Then, they placed nine cubes in the 1s' place on bottom.

"Now, how will we add 23 and 9?" Childs asked.

"We have to regroup," piped up Neim Dennis, 7, a second-grader.

A little while later, the 6- and 7-year-olds bubbled with excitement about a recent sleepover at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

"We saw the parrot, and he was so noisy," said Zoie Dodd.

"When I woke up and saw the [stuffed] buffalo, I thought it was real at first," said Jabreel Bryce, 6.

After another boy brought up the hissing cockroaches, Childs asked where they came from. Several voices cried out at once: "Madagascar!"

"Where is Madagascar?" she asked.

"In Africa," one girl answered.

"It's an island off the coast of Africa," Childs noted. "In what ocean is it?"

"The Indian Ocean," Neim said.

And Childs, normally a no-nonsense teacher who is serious about classroom rules, looked pleased.

For more information about the Montessori Genesis II school, at 3529 Haverford Avenue, call 215-387-2078.