It was the year 1979 and Pamela Green was in college with a major in elementary education. Her Educational Theory course professor took the class to a small Montessori school to learn about and observe this philosophy of education.
From the moment Pamela walked into that space, she was transformed. In her words,
“This was a place sacred to the child. It took me some time to find the adults; they were on the floor amongst the children. Never had I seen such focused joy of learning. And it was busy, yet not chaotic. The adults were quiet, watching, and offering help when needed. I loved the beauty of the space, the respectful atmosphere, and especially the happiness I saw in the children exploring.”
So transformational was the experience, that after that visit, Pamela met with her advisor and changed her major. She knew that if she were to be a teacher it had to be in this philosophy of Maria Montessori, which she did not yet understand, but felt such connection to.
She went on to work as an assistant teacher in a Montessori school in South Carolina from 1984-86 and then, in a fun twist of fate, came back to The Children’s House of Erie, the very school where her Montessori journey had begun.
Starting a Montessori School without Starting It
The school Pamela “started” was actually started by two of her friends in 1981. She was associated with the school from the very beginning, but started working there in 1993, and finally became Head of School in 2000 when the first owner moved on to a public Montessori program.
The school was run by a nonprofit Board of Directors, and by the time she was Head of School, there had been a growing demand for an elementary program. Many parents did not wish to leave their program after their third year in the 3-6 classroom.
So, they added on first grade and with demand continuing to increase, they quickly outgrew their space. After 23 years of being in one place, they moved the two-classroom school to a 12-acre campus, with a school, and Stone Church on the grounds.
While she may not have started the school, she did take it from a 3-6 school to a school that goes up to Grade 8. The challenges, she says, are all the same.
There are so many things that have to be worked on when you begin or add on in your program.
State regulations are first; for the physical space, for the staff, for the children, etc.
Upon moving to the larger building the Department of Labor and Industry conducted an inspection, and they had to install emergency lighting, and make other changes to meet the regulations to have a school occupancy permit.
Since this was their first owned space, they needed to have many other inspections done, including for the building, boiler, water, and inspections from the state Department of Education, the Department of Public Welfare, etc.
Also, since they were adding a Lower Elementary 6-9 classroom, Green and the teacher worked together to create an in-depth curriculum document that would meet the Dept. of Ed standards.
They also had to order new materials and furniture for this classroom.
A few years later the school expanded the program to include Upper Elementary 9-12 students. Again, they had to meet the Dept. of Ed standards and create documents for approval.
At every stage of the growth process, they had to provide copies of blueprints of the new building, new classrooms, and outdoor space to state agencies.
Pamela also began a Toddler community which involved additional changes to the physical space to meet the Department of Public Welfare requirements. They also purchased new materials and furniture for this classroom.
One of her last additions to the program was to include 7th and 8th grade, at the (strong) request of the students and parents.
The annual budget was created by a Board of Directors based on the needs of the program that Pamela would present to them. The budget included staffing, Montessori materials, and other Administrative needs.
This budget also included monies needed for Marketing, Fundraising, improvements to the physical building, etc.
As far as prioritizing, Pamela always kept her staff at the top, and encouraged the Board to support the staff in as many ways as possible, including salary increases.
While Pamela may not have been involved in the initial startup, the costs and the challenges that she had to work with at every stage of growth were similar. Probably the biggest difference when starting up a Montessori school is the element of uncertainty and doubt when it comes to knowing the number of children you may be serving.
Finding Students and Filling Your Montessori School Classrooms
Like Beth Holley, the founder of Renaissance Montessori School, Pamela Green and her team of teachers also found their first students through word-of-mouth.
Later, they made brochures, did mailings, had Open Houses, and invited University students to visit, as she herself had done way back in 1979.
Before the web, they made flyers, and did some radio, TV and newspaper interviews.
The school always had a Fall Festival, which was open to the community.
Eventually, they had a website, Facebook page, and a newsletter which went out to the parents and also relatives and friends of the program.
Some of the other things they did to get students enrolling were:
- A Holiday program to honor all traditions which was open to the public.
- Monthly Open House evenings, or sometimes mornings on a Saturday.
- A student referral program where if you brought a family into the school who enrolled, you would receive $100 off of your tuition for each child who enrolled in our program.
- Radio advertising, television sponsorships, mass-mailings with postcards.
- Organizing an art show which included the children’s art as well as other artists.
- School Tours, and had a process for families to go through from their first phone call to their enrollment.
A successful initiative that Pamela and her team instituted was a family mentoring program where ‘older’ parents were matched with ‘newer’ ones as support during the early phases.
Of all of these ways to reach out to others and build enrollment, Pamela vouches that the very best one still is through word of mouth.
Riding the Emotional Rollercoaster of Starting a Montessori School
Pamela’s journey was rich, wondrous, scary, and sometimes anxiety-ridden.
Her main challenge as Head of School was that she was acting as Executive Director and Educational Director, while still teaching full-time in the classroom.
In her words, “Is this crazy? Well, this was the model I came into, and I did my very best, but it is really too much for one person!”
She was the chief administrator, and a teacher.
She was the supervisor and mentor to eleven staff (at that time).
Since Pamela herself had been mentored by two wonderful AMI teachers for many years, and had experienced the true value of learning in this way, she made herself available to her staff…through observing them, offering guidance, modeling, and through Montessori training.
During her initial years all of this was difficult to juggle and deal with on an emotional level.
Another difficulty and challenge for all of those years was that they were a private school, so didn’t receive any additional money at the state or federal level. When you are a nonprofit, private school, finances are always tight and this was a constant reality for the school.
Not only that, because the nonprofit was run by a Board of Directors, the success of the school was dependent on the level of leadership and competence of the Board. Sometimes this varied over the years, which made things difficult.
Pamela’s learning from this was that her next Montessori program, which she is working on now, would still be private, but be a sole-proprietorship.
However, riding this emotional rollercoaster had a lot of highs as well.
What gave Pamela the most satisfaction, and as she says, continues to do so, is her relationship to Maria Montessori.
In her words,
“This may sound strange, but my journey in this philosophy has been as much about me discovering who I am as it has been about me discovering the child. Also, I get such joy out of being with children and observing their own deep wisdom in finding their way in the world. They help me to see, hear, feel, taste, and wonder, and to love. I also enjoy, deeply, witnessing the parent’s discovery of themselves and their children through their process of living Montessori.”
Tips and Takeaways: Things to Keep in Mind when Starting and Running a Montessori School
Pamela’s extensive and in-depth, hands-on experience is rich with tips and takeaways that you can use to ensure your journey of starting and running a Montessori school is smooth and stress-free.
Pamela took her school from the first year when the program was open from 7:30am-5:30pm, M-F, the ages were 3-6, there were 2 staff, and the capacity in that classroom was 25 to the present program which is open from 7:30am-5:30pm, M-F, ages 18 months through age 14. There is one Toddler class, one 3-6, and one elementary grades 1-8. There are 7 staff and the capacity of students who could be in the program is around 70.
It is incredible and inspiring and on that note, here are her best tips to help you enjoy this rich and wondrous ride.
Besides the tips that Pamela shared earlier about getting the first students enrolled, she recommends going out into the community and serving them in some ways – giving to food bank, volunteering as a group, etc.
Offer a Sibling Discount. At Pamela’s school they offered a $200 discount to each sibling enrolled at the same time.
To inspire parents to commit to the three-year-cycle, Pamela started a Tuition Freeze program. This meant that upon enrollment if a family chose to commit to staying for the 3 years, then the tuition would be frozen at the first year’s rate. According to Pamela, half of the parents took advantage of this tuition freeze, which helped with retention.
Most of the staff, including Pamela herself, came in as parents. She never had to advertise for lead teachers.
For assistants she did advertise, but rarely. The most important thing to Pamela was observing any candidate with children.
She also found it useful to have a certain number of days as a supervisory period when an employee was first hired. For Pamela’s school, it was 90 days and then the final decision for full-hire was made, or not.
The school sometimes supported certain people to train and paid for their training. They had people trained through AMI, AMS, AMU, and NAMC.
Pamela advises that you do what feels right in the moment in regards to the school’s budget and the person who is to be hired/trained.
If the school sent a staff member for Montessori training, then an additional contract was used. This contract stated that the school had chosen to send this person to train and outlined where they were training, the cost of the training, and that the teacher must complete the training in good standing, then teach in the classroom for two years after receiving final Montessori Certification/diploma from the training.
If the teacher left before that time, or was asked to, then the teacher had to reimburse the school financially for the training and could not retain any materials from the training.
Once the teacher has completed the training and the two years of teaching, then they were free to stay or leave, and the Montessori Albums/Manuals and other training materials belonged to the teacher, not the school.
As a child enters the Children’s House or any other Montessori school and begins their Montessori journey, the parent does as well.
It is vital to create and offer a way of supporting parents and building a true Montessori community.
Pamela led monthly parent education evenings that served between 20-35 parents. Some evenings they would be in the Montessori classrooms learning and exploring the materials, and sometimes they would meet to discuss and share in-depth their own journeys as parents.
Doing it all, finding balance and boosting productivity
Delegation is very important, as is finding people who can be independent and follow-through.
After 20 years of working full-time, through the summers (they were open year-round), Pamela decided to leave the classroom and give herself time to take graduate courses towards a Masters, as well as discover what her next steps would be in Montessori.
She recommends that all staff should be given the time for self-study, reflection, and renewal.
Montessori, according to Pamela, is much more than a type of education.
“What Maria Montessori presented to us in her words and wisdom is a way to ignite a longing to know what is yet unknown.”
Pamela recalls one of her children saying that “Maria Montessori gives us just enough to begin to wonder, and then the rest is up to us.”
Also, her elementary children wrote, directed, and filmed a documentary about what Maria Montessori meant to them and their own experience of Montessori.
One of the boys said, at the beginning of the film, “Maria Montessori stands here, because we stand here.”
For Pamela, that sums up what Montessori education is all about.
Have you been considering starting a Montessori school? What questions do you have? Ask us in the comments below and we’ll be happy to help!
Have you started a Montessori school? We’d love to hear your story and share it with the world! Please contact Startup @ TrilliumMontessori.org (no spaces)