Vineyard Montessori – 35 and going strong

Irene Wendt and Chloe Combra (6) practice multiplication with The Stamp Game. — File photo by Gil Jacobs

In the early 1900s, when Dr. Maria Montessori pioneered her scientific approach to educating young children in Rome, Italy, few would have guessed that she’d hit on a learning process that would become a lasting tradition on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard some three quarters of a century later.

On Friday, July 9, the Vineyard Montessori School will celebrate its 35th anniversary with a cocktail party at the Vineyard Haven home of Joel and Tamara Buchwald from 6 to 8 pm. The event will be an opportunity to bring the alumni community together in recognition of the school’s important milestone, according to the school’s Director Lorna Ashe.

“We realized that over the past 35 years we’ve educated more than a thousand children on the Island,” Ms. Ashe explains. “But we’ve never stopped to get together to celebrate. We’re putting the word out to all alumni to contact us for an invitation if we haven’t gotten one to you yet.”

The Vineyard Montessori School began as a shared dream: a group of parents — Nat and Pam Benjamin, Elizabeth and Daniel Depperman, Wendy Whipple and Ken Bilzerian, Charlene and Bob Douglas, Amy and Mike Zoll, Jane and Tom Counter, to name just a few —got together and began talking about starting a new preschool on the Island. It was 1975 and by then the Montessori School philosophy had been embraced worldwide.

The Counters had come to the Vineyard from St. Croix in the Virgin Islands where they had met two local Montessori-trained teachers, Shakti Reynolds and Jill Wilson. So when the Vineyard group got serious about creating a new school, they invited the women to visit the Island and discuss the Montessori philosophy with other parents.

“I came to visit the Island for the first time in February 1975,” says Ms. Reynolds. “I was greeted with so much energy, enthusiasm, and love surrounding the project, I knew I’d met my tribe.”

Embracing the basic Montessori tenets of honoring a child’s individuality and fostering independence, Ms. Reynolds and Ms. Wilson, with the help of dedicated parents, worked hard to open the doors of the Vineyard Montessori School in the fall of 1975. Its first location was the historic Vineyard Haven building that now houses the Vineyard Playhouse. And, while the school packed up and moved five times over the next 35 years, it managed to keep its doors open to educate more than 1,000 Island children between the ages of three and nine. As Les Leland, president of the school’s board of directors for close to a decade in the 1980s, says, “It’s a true Vineyard story.”

By 1985 the board had grown weary of the school’s nomadic life and, according to Mr. Leland, began searching for a building to purchase. He is credited for investing countless hours in negotiating for the property at 286 Main Street and in managing its extensive renovation that year.

Vineyard Montessori was truly a labor of love by the many parents involved in its growth. Nat Benjamin, Daniel Depperman, and other handy dads handcrafted the original wooden desks, tables, and cubbies. Current Board President Bill Cleary and his wife, Jean, along with present and former board members like Wendy and Gil Jacobs, tended to the school’s grounds and manned fundraisers like Casino Night, which yielded thousands of dollars in much-needed funds.

Today the school is solvent, it pays its bills, and it is fully enrolled for fall 2010. But because tuition only covers about 80 percent of the nonprofit’s costs, there is always the need for ongoing support from the community.

Both Mr. Cleary and Mr. Jacobs, a current board member, point to the absence of a capital fund. “We’re working hard to make both the program and the building as stable as possible,” Mr. Cleary explains. “Our biggest challenge is fiscal. The building is old and it needs work. We lack the extra funds to keep it in the condition we’d like.”

Mr. Jacobs elaborates: “To be successful, we have to have solid enrollment, strong teachers, and fiscal responsibility. We have amazing teachers and Lorna is doing a phenomenal job as our full-time director. But the building is over 50 years old. It needs a lot of work. There’s no imminent trouble but the day will come.”

The July 9 cocktail party is a rallying call, of sorts. Founders Nat and Pam Benjamin and the school’s first teacher, Shakti Reynolds, now a real estate broker on the Island, plan to attend, as well as scores of other parents, present and former students, and friends from the community. Ms. Ashe says she plans to launch a major alumni effort, building a more complete database of members, as well as gathering their stories and photos for the school’s website and a new publication.

Loyalty is one element that is never in short supply at Vineyard Montessori. Signe Benjamin, the younger daughter of the founding Benjamins, is a former student and current board member. Now 37, her five-year-old son Harper has completed three years in the program.

“I see the same lessons, the same philosophy as when I was a child,” Signe says. “I see Harper blossoming there. Montessori encourages children to become independent, self-confident learners. Lorna Ashe’s vision inspires me. There’s a ‘the sky is the limit’ feeling under her direction.”

Dana Jacobs, the older daughter of parents Wendy and Gil, is now 15 and a student at the regional high school. While both Dana and her sister Olivia attended Vineyard Montessori, Ms. Jacobs admits she was heartbroken when it was time to leave the school after third grade, so much so, in fact, that her parents considered moving off-Island so she could continue her Montessori education. They stayed, and today both girls are thriving in public schools. The lessons she learned, however, remain central to her life, she says.

“Montessori made me feel so confident and focused. They encouraged every single one of us. No one is treated differently. There are no favorites. No losers. Everyone is loved and valued. It’s helped me to see people more openly, without judgment.”

Dana’s mother concurs: “The school is a microcosm of the Island where everyone counts, everyone is special, everyone respects learning and one another.”

For more information on the Vineyard Montessori School’s 35th Anniversary Celebration on Friday, July 9, contact Director Lorna Ashe at 508-693-4090.