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1110 College NE
Grand Rapids, MI 49503



Filtering by Tag: Strategic Planning

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.

A Stepping Stone into the Future of Our School

Elizabeth Topliffe

by Elizabeth Topliffe, Head of School

To quote the incredible John Hannibal Smith (of A-Team fame), “I love it when a plan comes together.”

On March 16, the Stepping Stones Montessori Board of Trustees approved a Strategic Plan for our school’s next three years. Like most plans (even those of the A-Team), our Plan includes input from many people and perspectives. Over the past year, our community engaged in serious self-assessment and reflection—resulting in a thoughtful and forward-looking Strategic Plan.

Like all good Montessori work, our plan began broadly and became more detailed as we progressed. In this article, I’m going to discuss our big picture. (I’ll share more about the planning process and details later.) As always in a Montessori school, the questions were much more important than the answers.

We began with the most basic questions:

  • Why do our work and our community matter?
  • What is important about what we do?
  • What is the purpose of Stepping Stones Montessori School?

As we reflected on those questions, two important pieces rose to the surface.

First, our work as a community is important for the children of today as well as the adults those children will become. Ultimately, our work is about changing the world. We are dedicated to building a robust, diverse community that supports our students, family, staff, and alumni.

Second, our school is built upon the idea that students learn rather than on the idea that adults teach. Children come to our school with the innate ability to learn, discover, and unlock ideas. Montessori schools do not force feed information to their students. Instead, we channel children’s natural curiosity and challenge them to grow.

With that in mind, we adopted the following mission statement for our school:

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.

Below, I have included the Strategic Plan’s discussion of these core values.

Established in Partnership

Stepping Stones was founded by a group of parents and teachers who passionately supported Montessori education. From the moment of our founding in 1983, we have lived as a community. Our students create communities within their classroom and within the larger school—forging their future with support from teachers, peers, their parents and the parents in our extended school family. Parents at our school understand that we are their partner in helping their children discover themselves. They seek us out, share information, and modify their homes to best support their children’s learning. Our guides and staff cultivate relationships with children and their parents, helping families create homes that nurture the potential in one another. Our families support each other and are available for a social gathering at almost any time. Our staff creates meaningful partnership with one another because our work is important and cannot be done alone.

Rooted in Montessori

“Montessori” is more than a word in our name. It is at our very core. We aspire to be as true to Maria Montessori’s vision for the development of a child as possible. Our guides are trained and certified. Our students come to us with knowledge and character already inside of them. We guide them toward their full potential, helping them uncover their own personalities. Our materials are developed for Montessori classrooms. As we understand our mission, it reaches well beyond the academic needs of our students. We honor and respect each other and our fellow citizens of the earth. We are open to new ideas and to the beauty found in the world and each other. We are willing to try and fail, learning when things do not go as planned. We are peacemakers. Ultimately, we are Montessori because it is a way of being in the world that we honor, respect, and aspire to become. This value is deeply engrained within us, and it guides our entire organization.

Focused on the Child

The child is both the learner and the teacher. We honor each child’s unique gifts, personalities, and internal drive. When we make decisions, change the environment, and offer lessons, we consider them from the perspective of the child. Our guides and staff meet children where they are, and we help them forward on their path to adulthood. Our entire community, families, staff, guides, children share this focus. We begin with and end with the needs of the child.

I am very excited about our Plan and I’m looking forward to living into it with you. After Spring Break, I will share our goal areas and the process we used to develop the Plan. I will also present some of our key strategies.

Finally, we will celebrate the Plan and the work of our community (including staff, current parents, former students, former parents, former staff, and board members) at a community celebration on April 27 (details to follow). Please save this date to share some adult beverages, small eats, and raise a glass to the work of our community. The Plan will be available and there will also be time for you to ask your questions.

I look forward to seeing you soon.