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1110 College NE
Grand Rapids, MI 49503
USA

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Blog

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.

Big Goals

Elizabeth Topliffe

 

“I only see my goals, I don't believe in failure
'Cause I know the smallest voices, they can make it major”

--Lukas Graham

by Elizabeth Topliffe, Head of School

We talk about our goals often here. We encourage students to talk about the pictures in their minds. At Stepping Stones, rather than telling students what to do and how to do it, our guides are trained facilitators. Our job is to help students share their mental pictures, build those pictures into reality, and help students understand the practical realities that go into the work of achieving their goals.

With the approval of our Strategic Plan on March 16, the entire Stepping Stones community is now working from a shared picture. We are clear about where we are going. We have specific strategies to get us there.

With these goals and strategies, we are ready to take on the difficult work of making our picture a reality. We know how to work hard, and we relish both the work and the success. Let’s face it, we’re good at that.

So, let’s celebrate both! Please join us on Thursday, April 27 at 7 PM for a celebration of the final Strategic Plan. We’ll gather at the Downtown Market for beverages and light hors d'oeuvres. There will be conversation about the Strategic Plan and opportunities to help us achieve our goals. Please plan to attend this event!

If you’re wondering about that shared picture, here is a pretty broad overview. As our strategic planning process moved forward, we determined four areas for focus in the Plan. They are:

  • Governance & Financial Model
  • Supporting a Vibrant Montessori Experience
  • Harnessing Our Community's Passion
  • Becoming the Voice of Montessori in West Michigan

I want you to know the purpose of and highlights from each of these goal areas because they encompass a lot of work and initiatives.

Governance & Financial Model—As we worked on the Strategic Plan, our committees continuously looped back to our need for a professional governance model, solid financial processes, and operational strength. Stepping Stones was founded as a parent-run school, and we honor that history. At the same time, our school is in transition to a mature and effectively run school. With an eye toward long-term sustainability, Stepping Stones will work in the following areas to build a strong operational structure: board policies that support strategic board governance, leadership development, creating a budgeting and tuition model, and ensuring the administrative structure to support that. We will also review salary structures and planning for contingencies.

Supporting a Vibrant Montessori Experience—As I mentioned in my last note, the strategic planning process revealed that Stepping Stones is Montessori to the core. Our school has consistently provided excellent, authentic Montessori education in Grand Rapids. The experience of our students is at the heart of who we are. We will continue to build on this strength by: reviewing our scope and sequence, ensuring that our programs reflect our key values, developing our program into the adolescent years (junior high), and ensuring that our facilities support our programs.

Harnessing our Community’s Passion—Our parents, alumni, and community are strong, generous, and loyal to our school. I’m astounded how often an alumna speaks highly and passionately about their school experience at Stepping Stones. They remember materials and work. Former students laugh about their musicals and operas with comical stories and occasionally photos. To equip the school for its future, Stepping Stones will develop an advancement office to employ proven, professional processes to engage and involve a wide range of people.

Becoming the Voice of Montessori in West Michigan—The Grand Rapids community enjoys a rich commitment to schools of choice and alternative education.  Stepping Stones enjoys a niche in the community as the only secular private school that holds high levels of Montessori excellence. To continue our growth, ensure the future success of the school, and to enrich our community’s understanding, Stepping Stones will become a resource for families and West Michigan seeking Montessori expertise.

These goals are big, and our future depends on our entire community’s focus on them. Our picture of the school’s future was built  by many community members—current parents, former parents, alumni, staff, and board members. The picture we drew together is better than any single picture we could have created. I’m excited to share more with you!

Stepping Stones Montessori School nurtures global citizens and guides each child to realize their unique potential.

This mission is carried out in through our core values and our community identity. Stepping Stones Montessori is:

  • Established in Partnership 
  • Rooted in Montessori, and
  • Focused on the Child.