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1110 College NE
Grand Rapids, MI 49503



Mid Summer Update!

Elizabeth Topliffe

I hope everyone has been enjoying long summer days! At Stepping Stones Montessori School, we have continued to be busy. I thought you might like to hear what we’ve been doing with our summer.

Summer Program

Our summer program for Infant/Toddler and Children’s House students is in full swing. We are able to enjoy more outdoor time, a relaxed schedule, and even time to ride bicycles. In Infant/Toddler, Ann, Angie, Claire, Lisa, Elizabeth, Ana, and Vanessa have been staying busy with our students, applying sunscreen for outdoor adventures. In Children’s House, JoAnne, Monika, Michael, and Christina have been finding outdoor adventure, including exploring the ravine and water time. Even Fred, one of our school dogs, has been enjoying a more relaxed pace.

Junior High

We have also been hard at work developing a junior high program to begin in the fall of 2018. We are very excited that one of our own graduates, Katie Powell, has joined us to spearhead this initiative. Katie has business, non-profit, and education knowledge and experience. For us, it is a win to have an alum in this role, especially one with great skills in collaborative partnerships, research, and project management. Katie and her husband, David, are also Stepping Stones parents of Micah, who is in our Infant/Toddler program.


Our space is no longer fitting all of our needs, both in quantity of space and in the degree to which the space supports our programs. In May, we were presented the opportunity to purchase the house to our north on Paris St. (1137 Paris). After due diligence, the Board of Trustees voted to purchase the property, and as of July 6, we own the house at that address. A donor stepped up to help with this purchase which made the acquisition easy. Our next step is to continue working with Progressive AE on planning for our needs, and we will be communicating our next steps!

Upcoming Events

Please join us on August 27 at the Whitecaps game for a social gathering. Our elementary students will be singing the national anthem, and we hope to see you there.

End of Year

Elizabeth Topliffe

by Elizabeth Topliffe, Head of School

We are almost there! The last few gasps of our academic year are upon us. Our students performed an opera, our graduating sixth graders have given their speeches, and we are sadly saying our good-byes for the summer.

This has been a very good year for Stepping Stones. We have completed a strategic plan, and we are well on our way toward achieving some of summer and fall milestones—including a new governance and financial model; updating our mission statement; finding a junior high coordinator, and developing new capstone events for our students.

Our opera was a stunning success. The students’ performances were dazzling and impressive. I was so proud of the way our older students performed and held the opera together. Thanks to geckos and sunflowers, the performance also had just the right touch of sweetness to balance out the stunning. And, most important, the entire week featured students helping one another, supporting their classmates, and cheering each other on.

I can’t think of a better way to end the year than with that kind of capstone event. Add to it a 6th year trip, a beautiful graduation ceremony, a third year bike trip, and the continued support of community that the students demonstrated, and you’ve got the perfect end to a fabulous SSMS year.

As our year closes, I wanted to share with you the status of our school’s spring appeal for the Lifelong Learning Fund. As I mentioned in my last post, we received a pledge of $10,000 to match gifts from any new donors to the fund. In addition, the Stepping Stones Board of Trustees pledged an additional $5,000 in matching funds, allowing us to fully match half of our $30,000 goal for our appeal.

I am very pleased to let you know that we are only $2,725 short of fully meeting that goal, and utilizing 100% of both matching funds! Gifts in amounts varying from $25 to $5000 have come in to assist us along the way in fully funding our financial aid fund, our performing arts fund, and our professional development budget. Over 30 families have helped us to reach this point.

We are so close to that $30,000 goal. We could easily achieve it. One $1,000 gift, one $500 gifts, two $200 gifts, three $100 gifts, ten $50 gifts, and one $25 gift will put us there.

In case you’re wondering why you should give to our Lifelong Learning Fund, here are some terrific reasons:

  • Tuition does not fully cover the cost of running our school;
  • 15% of our students received financial assistance this year;
  • Our staff is our greatest asset, and investments in their professional development pay dividends in their ability to guide children and in their engagement with their work; and
  • Opera (need I say more?)

Finally, and of the greatest importance, thank you. Our community has been shoulder to shoulder with our faculty and staff for over thirty years. We are here because so many people have committed themselves to the vision of a great Montessori school in Grand Rapids. You see our school as something bigger than just school, with importance beyond the current students and with significance beyond Grand Rapids.

When we say that we do this work because we know that children come to us fully equipped to learn and because we want to change the world through global citizenship, we know that you’re with us and that you’re a part of that work also.

Not many schools can say that.

We can.

And that is no small thing.

Have a great summer.

A Junior High and a Facility

Elizabeth Topliffe

by Elizabeth Topliffe, Head of School

The Student Experience

In my last post, I talked about our four goal areas:

  • Governance & Finance
  • Supporting a Vibrant Montessori Experience
  • Harnessing our Community’s Passion
  • Becoming the Voice for Montessori in West Michigan

These are all important goal areas, and we have strategies that support each. The goal of supporting a vibrant Montessori experience, however, stands alone, and it is deserving of individual conversation.

I call it out for two reasons. First, this is the area where we excel, and it is the core of our school. Our teachers, paraprofessionals, and others create an optimal environment for Montessori experiences. Indeed, the other three goals exist only to support the student experience. The second reason I mention it is that we have some big work underway in this area.

A Junior High

Our strategic plan calls for us to open a junior high program in the 2018-19 academic year. This is great news for our school and our families. Other schools I’ve visited have reported that adding junior high has stabilized their enrollment. Parents have shared their relief that they are not transitioning their children to a program for just two years before moving them to high school. Those a great benefits to a junior high, but they are not the reasons we are undertaking this.

We are undertaking a junior high program because adolescence is a time of great growth in the brain.  Unlike earlier brain development that takes place between birth and age six, this growth surge is not about new gray matter. Instead, brain development at this age is primarily devoted to the development of white matter. Myelin and myelination create the systems for optimal brain function during this time. These systems are why I can drive my car daily without really needing to think about each step. That system is hard wired in my brain.

Because of this growth, adolescents need two important things: Autonomy and Conformity. At first that may sound paradoxical. If you think back to your own adolescence, it may make more sense. Adolescents need to develop autonomy from their family and the relatively sheltered life they have lived at school and under the watch of their parents. They also are very social, and they are looking for social systems for conformity. That might be a school group or an idea of what is “cool” or “uncool”, but conformity is very important at this age.

If adolescents need both autonomy and conformity, we should provide the best environment for that to happen. That is the reason we have every other program at Stepping Stones Montessori School. Our programs are created to provide the best environment for the natural development at that particular stage of life.

Our junior high program will provide autonomy and conformity by creating a community that includes connection to the land and a micro-economy, run by students. It will allow conformity to a more meaningful level by giving students the opportunity to think beyond themselves, producing work that the community needs, and making a difference in the world through connections to greater Grand Rapids.

Stepping Stones will do this by hiring a junior high coordinator this summer. Our coordinator will go to training this summer and then spend next year building a curriculum and program.

The even better news? We already have a leadership gift of $75,000 to help us toward the $240,000 in capital needed to launch this important program.

A couple other things

The student experience is, of course, not just the junior high. Earlier this year we created a new position. Each level of our program now has a level lead. Emily Jacobson, Beth Goodrich, Jan Reed and Jenn Porter are working together to ensure that our students experience a consistent thread from the infant/toddler program straight through our entire program.

Also, our facility is quickly becoming too small for our growing programs. We already have a wait list for two of our three infant/toddler rooms and for Children’s House in the fall. We have staff working in the copy room, and we share office space. Although we are sometimes cramped, that is a wonderful problem to have!

We are beginning to also look at alternatives for new space for our programs, including looking at new properties and potentially expanding in our current location. Above all, we want to be sure our facility supports our programs, rather than being sure our programs fit our facility. That is why we are beginning with a junior high coordinator to build that program. Our facility will follow with final recommendations on a facility coming in late winter/early spring of 2018.

How can you help?

There is no shortage of work to pull these off. The good news is that we are accustomed to hard work. We thrive on it. There will be two small groups looking at the real estate side for the school as well as for the junior high. If you’re interested in working on either of those, please let me know.

The other way you can help is to give to our spring appeal. The Lifelong Learning Fund was launched last year to help Stepping Stones Montessori School meet its growing needs. The Lifelong Learning Fund pays for our financial aid and our performing arts programs. It also provides professional development for our faculty and helps us replace well-loved Montessori materials.

Our goal this spring is to raise $30,000. This will allow us to fully fund Stepping Stones’ financial aid program, which assists 15% of our students. It will also fund our spring opera—Azteca and the Peacemakers, coming up this Friday. Finally, it will provide funding for Montessori training for three of our staff members.

The even better news is that we have a matching donation of $10,000 for new donors to the Lifelong Learning Fund. If you have not made a donation to the fund in the past, please consider making a gift before May 31 to allow us to fully utilize that match. If you have given in the past, we hope you will join us again this year in continuing our school’s fabulous history and growth.

I look forward to seeing these plans come to fruition in this amazing community.  I continue to be grateful for the many ways you support the spark of learning in each and every child.