Children are human beings to whom respect is due, superior to us by reason of their innocence and of the greater possibilities of their future.
All good stories start with a beginning, extraordinary characters and often a journey. Our story has all of that and more. The founders, Linda Neugebauer and Mary Lee were on their way back from a winter vacation in Florida and while driving through the night with husbands asleep in the back seats, they decided to start a school. And the journey begins…
The year was 1984, and our founders saw a need for an early childhood center on the east side of Columbus. Linda and Mary’s vision included:
A comprehensive program, addressing both early education and childcare needs for children ages 3 to 6.
A nurturing environment, one that was developmental in its approach so that each child would be taught and cared for at his or her individual level and ability.
A school that was available to a diverse socio-economic population
An aggressive fundraising program to offer a significant amount of financial aid to its students.
A school that partnered with parents to support their children’s growth and development.
In August of 1984, the doors opened at the South portion or Redeemer Lutheran Church as Columbus Montessori School, a not-for-profit 501 (c) 3 entity, with 17 children ages three to six in two Children’s House classrooms. In November, the school reached its first-year capacity of 51 children. By the next school year, the program expanded to 77 children and a third classroom was added. In the third year, a fourth classroom was added to accommodate 110 children. This was the maximum size the school could maintain in its church location.
During these early years, the school also offered an after school and summer program for elementary age children. Ultimately, every available space was utilized including the church basement!
With few resources, other than excellent teachers and a 20-year-old set of used classroom materials, board volunteers, staff and parents collectively raised the capital needed to launch the school, including a fundraiser at the Drexel Theatre for new carpet held two days before the bill needed to be paid!
In 1988, funded by foundation grants, Columbus Montessori established a Teacher Education Program (TEP) to increase the pool of Montessori credentialed teachers for new and existing schools. Adult students who completed the two-year program were eligible for a Montessori teaching certificate to teach children ages 3-6. The national credential is issued by the Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education, which determines to both national and international Montessori standards.
The school changed its name to Columbus Montessori Education Center (CMEC) as a signal that the expanding mission was broader than a school. The expanding mission included being an innovative model program for others to emulate, a teacher education site for Ohio and beyond, a community center for the neighborhood, and an advocate for high quality education and care for all children.
Starting in 1991 the Franklin County Department of Education selected Columbus Montessori to be a pilot site that would serve children ages 3-6 with developmental disabilities allowing them to experience an integrated learning environment. After school districts began offering this service, the program was phased out in 2005.
In 1992, Columbus Montessori developed a part-time parent/toddler program, which was a forerunner of a toddler pre-school program and a full-time infant/toddler option after the school relocated.
Demand for program admission greatly increased each year, with long wait lists and requests for other programs that the rented space at Redeemer Lutheran Church could not accommodate. Thus, the CMEC dedicated community of staff, parents and alumni launched a capital campaign to obtain a larger space.
In October of 1992, Columbus Montessori purchased a permanent facility just a mile north of its original location. The 27,000 square foot building located on 7 acres of land was originally built and used as a Columbus Public elementary school.
The facility would allow CMEC to expand and improve services for children ages 3 to 6, create the Jessica Kass Center (JKC) – the first Montessori infant/toddler program in Central Ohio, and add an elementary school. Program building space alone increased by 300%!
After two years of fundraising and facility renovation, including thousands of hours of professional and volunteer effort, CMEC’s new home was ready for move in. The school closed on a Friday in April, parents and staff moved furnishings and materials out of the school’s rented space and into its new location over the weekend. CMEC re-opened for children the following Monday.
The new location included the 20,000 sq ft Huntington Playground, the first playground locally to be accessible for children with physical challenges. After months of preparation, it was built by 1300 volunteers, including 500 volunteers from the Huntington Bank, over 5 days in September of 1993. The playground continues to be available to the community when the school is closed.
To ensure excellent teachers for the JKC program model, in 2000, the school expanded its Teacher Education Program to include a Montessori Credential for adults teaching children birth to 3.
Beginning in 2001, the school leadership began to transition from our founders, who have remained involved informally. Peggy Fein who was an original board member, then part-time teacher, then part of the administrative team became the Executive Director. Her children also attended the school in the early years. She successfully led the school through a period of new partnerships.
In 2006 CMEC was one of the Step Up To Quality pilot programs and along with Gladden Community House the first to receive a three star rating (the highest rating at the time).
In 2006 CMEC also participated in the Early Learning Initiative (ELI) which provided additional financial resources to offset the costs of school readiness efforts particularly for children from low-income households.
Staff participated in many state-level workgroups, creating documents such as the Infant Toddler Guidelines and the Core Competencies for Professionals. The school was always willing to share expertise and other resources as necessary to advance quality efforts for both children, their families, and the early childhood workforce.
Although Peggy remained for several months as an advisor after she retired in November 2006, the school struggled to find the right leadership for its aggressive mission. A former public-school administrator became the school’s leader until April of 2008. After she left, Ann Timm was recruited to take the leadership position as she was a longtime educator and advocate for CMEC whose children had attended the school. Ann committed to leading the school for two years. She focused on staff needs, supporting children and parents and addressing the financial challenges of the recession and a significant loss of funding that resulted when the state shuttered the Early Learning Initiative. After two years, Ann went on to another position outside of the school, but then returned from 2015 until 2020 as Operations Manager.
The Board of Trustees exercising their fiduciary responsibility for the school had to put forth several strategies to save the school which included closing the middle school. The leadership of the Board during this time cannot be underestimated. The school would not have survived without them. The Board Presidents during this time were Laurel Dawson and Morna Smith. They reorganized the board structure and updated its functions to be more consistent with the complex organization the school had become.
In 2010, another former public-school principal became the Executive Director for a few years. When she left, then Board President Nancy DeRoberts-Moore served as Interim Executive Director until a new permanent Director could be named.
Nancy DeRoberts-Moore and the Board of Trustees including the leadership of Ryan Helon, long serving member Melody Steely, and volunteer Joanna Helon who led an aggressive fundraising program continued efforts to stabilize the school financially. A new funding source, the EdChoice scholarship became available, and they seized the opportunity to participate. This decision has led to continued growth in our elementary program.
Jamie Gottesman was hired in the summer of 2014 after a yearlong search. Jamie had a distinguished career; known both within our state and across the country as a visionary with a can-do approach when it came to achieving outcomes for children.
There were significant challenges due to the impacts of the recession and several leadership changes that occurred prior to her tenure. A focus on rebuilding the foundation became a priority. Instead of surviving, the school began to thrive.
Quality was re-instilled in every aspect of the school from staffing, to programming and facilities. In 2017 our Upper Elementary classroom was transformed into a state-of-the-art authentic Montessori classroom. This led to renovation of our entire elementary wing.
Reading specialists were added to ensure our students are well-prepared for the rigors of their educational journey. A Makerspace was created to encourage and support scientific making of all kinds. MAP Growth was utilized to better support individualization and technology was added and upgraded where necessary to maximize our efforts on all fronts.
We recommitted to our mission of being an Anti-Biased Anti-Racist organization. Equity and social justice have been core values from day one and they will always be guiding principles for our school.
We did what few others could do during the 2020-2021 school year – provide continuous in-person learning. Our community rallied behind our COVID-19 precautions and together we made it through without a disruption in our student’s learning.
Emerging from a crisis can be just as difficult as moving through one. The 2021 national early childhood staffing crisis is significantly affecting our enrollment this school year, yet we are committed to persevere as Columbus Montessori has done throughout its 37 years of serving children and families with the highest quality programs.