Montessori School of the Berkshires shows off 1st phases of expansion after hitting $3M fundraising goal

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LENOX — It took only two years, instead of the expected five, for the Montessori School of the Berkshires to raise nearly $3 million for its "Go Beyond" capital campaign to fund a major expansion of its campus in a quiet residential neighborhood of Lenox Dale.

On Friday, during a gathering of families and community members, leaders of the near-capacity school serving 129 students from toddler age to eighth grade celebrated completion of the project's phase two.

An expansive multipurpose room and an adjoining space for the performing arts can host whole-school events such as concerts, theatrical productions, student art exhibits and parent education offerings. It will also accommodate indoor sports, including basketball, climbing, yoga and dance.

"I've been playing trumpet in the Montessori music program since third grade, but I've never had the opportunity to have a room devoted to music," said Jos Beckwith, now a sixth-grader. "I think it's an important step in the school's moving forward."

The school, specializing in nontraditional learning based on children's unique interests and abilities, has come a long way from its humble beginnings in 2006 at Lenox Commons, then known as Aspinwell. Initial enrollment was 24 early-childhood pupils under the leadership of Kira Meagan Ledendecker, the wife of co-founder and Head of School Todd Covert. A Monument Valley Middle School teacher in Great Barrngton, Covert joined the venture full-time a year later.

In an interview this past week, Covert explained that the original 9,000 square-foot building on a 40-acre woodland campus, opened in 2010, only provided classroom space. "We never had a space where the whole school could meet inside," he said. Now, the 7,300-square-foot addition is ready except for outdoor site work to be completed this summer, including an educational courtyard, gardens, greenhouse and playfield.

The $2,950,000 capital campaign was launched in May 2016 to mark the independent school's 10th anniversary. It took off so swiftly that major construction for phase one was completed in the first year, adding a new adolescent classroom, visual arts studio, library, lounge and staff offices.

"We feel very fortunate to have been able to do that," Covert said. "A variety of donors came forward, and that goes to show that Montessori is valued in the community. We've definitely become part of the educational tapestry of Berkshire County. We like to think of ourselves as a resource for families who want this type of education and we've had a pretty warm welcome."

He said there's "no particular kind of family or child" that the school caters to.

"Montessori was designed to meet the needs of every child," Covert said. "It's not something that a lot of people grew up with, but those who have know the value of it. It caters to the child's individual needs. We look to see where the child is socially, emotionally, cognitively, intellectually and move that child forward at their own pace so they're not lumped into having to think like other 10- or 12-year-olds, across all disciplines."

The international network of schools based on the methods of founder and education pioneer Maria Montessori, who opened her first school in Rome in 1907, calls on teachers to approach early education as a cooperative venture because children develop at different speeds. Famous graduates have included Anne Frank, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, Julia Child, Sean "P.Diddy" Combs, Prince William and Prince Harry, and Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, according to Montessori officials.

Children have "different interests, different tendencies," Covert pointed out, "and Montessori takes that into consideration and helps kids develop as they mature and develop on their own." Or to put it another way, he said, it's the opposite of the "one-size-fits-all" approach.

When students leave Montessori after eighth grade, he noted, "we have graduates all over the place, in public and independent schools. Because of the intimate setting here, we can prepare kids for whatever high school experience they're going to have. Academically, they're all moving through at their own pace, they're kids who really want to challenge themselves, and that's what a Montessori setting inspires. They become part of their education, engaged in what they're learning."

According to Covert, the feedback from high school teachers and guidance counselors is that the Montessori alumni are "more than well-prepared, they fold themselves into the fabric of the community they're in, as opposed to just entering and not knowing what to do."

Covert acknowledged a "transition, wherever they go, so we try to help them be able to mitigate that transition. There are going to be new routines and habits forming, so as part of our program, we help them understand what their role is in the greater community. That's going to help them in high school, and life in general, how we can best prepare them to navigate the greater world."

Enrollment has been increasing steadily since the relocation to Lenox Dale with the expansion downward to serve toddlers and upward into seventh and eighth grade, Covert noted. "We've seen a big uptick in elementary inquiries, coming from other independent schools and also from public schools," he said. Currently, there's a wait list for fifth- and sixth grade spots.

"Enrollment management is a good problem to have," he said. "We pull from Lenox but also from as far as Peru and from Chatham in New York state. It's a nice mix."

"We're grateful to have Montessori in our lives," said Montessori parents Marc Maurino and Dane Harrison. "It's a safe place where children are honored and respected, and where we are ever expanding in learning, in creativity, and in our compassion and care for one another."

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.

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