Springfield, MO

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A Conversation With ... Michelle Clayton

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Tell us about Discovery Garden.
This is our first school year, and we just opened in August for children starting at 16 months. Currently, we have two classrooms. In the toddler classroom, we have two teachers and a one-to-four ratio with eight students. In the pre-primary classroom, right now we have one teacher with five students. Our goal, really, is about 21 students, and we would hire another assistant. We’ll be adding on elementary as the children age, going at least through sixth grade. Annual tuition varies depending on age, (from) about $4,200 to $5,700. We are continuing enrollment throughout the year.

What does it mean to be a Montessori school?
Montessori is a completely different philosophy and method of education compared to traditional schools. Traditionally, education is generally teacher-directed. In a Montessori classroom, the classroom environment is prepared so that the children are empowered to choose works on their own and successfully complete (them) and take ownership of the classroom. The teacher works individually with the children, (introducing) work to the children when they’re ready for it. It’s very individualized, very hands-on, and focuses on helping the child develop independence and self-direction.

What led you to organize a Montessori school in Springfield?
I originally moved to Springfield two and a half years ago, and my background was in Montessori education. As soon as I came here, I tried to find a Montessori school so I could talk with them and get involved, and there weren’t any Montessori schools.

But aren’t there schools here that say they use Montessori?

Yes, but technically, the name Montessori is not copyrighted or licensed, so anybody can open up a school or a daycare and call it Montessori, even if it’s not Montessori. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to make sure we were affiliated with the American Montessori Society, to let people know that yes, we are held up to a code of ethics and standards to verify that we are a true Montessori school. A true Montessori school has the mixed-age classrooms (and) certified teachers in the classrooms, and we have all of that. Some schools use Montessori, philosophy, method or curriculum, but true Montessori schools tie it all together.

How much time – and startup capital – did it take to launch Discovery Garden?
My oldest son was 9 months old when we moved here, so I started to do some background research to see what it would take to get a school open (and held) information meetings at the library to find other people who might be interested in getting involved. ... Then a few months later, I found out I was pregnant with my second child, so … I put (the school) on the back burner for a little bit until my youngest was about 5 months old. In January, I gathered a group of people who had expressed interest as potential board members, and that’s when we incorporated in Missouri as a nonprofit, and we haven’t turned back since. We (had) a capital campaign, so the board members all made donations, and we received donations from some other people in the community who were interested in having Montessori education in Springfield. And two board members made a medium-sized loan so we would have finances up front to get everything in place. It was about $20,000 to get started.

What is your role as head of school, and do you miss the classroom?
I’m still working a lot on making sure that everything that needs to be in place is in place (and) making sure that we’re following proper safety standards and regulations. I’m also hiring teachers as needed, managing the budget and finances and working with the board on fundraising. I might change my mind down the road and want to get back into the classroom, but one of the things that I think is important for a school to be strong is to have a true head of school.

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