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.