Sussex Montessori School hailed as trailblazer

With students at the forefront and some elected officials in back, Sussex Montessori Head of School Lisa Coldiron, left, teams with Delaware Department of Education Sec. Dr. Susan Bunting to cut the ribbon, marking the dedication of Phase 1 construction/renovation at Sussex Montessori’s Seaford campus. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

SEAFORD — Scientific, researched-based education initially planted in Italy at the turn of the 20th century is occurring at Sussex Montessori School — a public charter elementary school that opened its doors in September with free education in grades K-3.

Having navigated challenges during COVID-19, the Seaford school opened on schedule with 260 students. Enrollment is expected to grow to 455 students by 2023-24, with addition of grades four through six each subsequent year.

“I think it’s good to have an opportunity for children to learn in a new environment,” said state Sen. Bryant Richardson, R-Seaford. “We have some of the best public schools in the area. But some people will be afforded the opportunity to at least participate in this new learning experience, which is more hands-on.”

Linda Zankowsky, board chairwoman of Sussex Montessori and Montessori Works, agreed.

“We know children are born ready to go. Their brains are developing from day one, with our interactions and with their interactions and with the environment around them,” she said. “Montessori classrooms are set up to be beautiful spaces for children to grow themselves as much as a teacher to teach them.”

On Wednesday, school administration, board members, staff and students joined state and local officials for a scaled-down building dedication held in lieu of a larger public event due to increasing community spread of COVID-19. In its place is a video that will be showcased in December.

“This is exciting because this is the first charter school that has opened in the last couple of years. We don’t have new charter schools every year,” said Delaware Department of Education Secretary Dr. Susan Bunting on Wednesday.

Sussex Montessori School recently completed the first phase of construction. It included construction of 10 classrooms and renovations to a former carriage house, which is now the food service and multipurpose room, and farmhouse, which became the administration building.

Construction of another quad with four classrooms will accommodate incremental expansion for grades four through six.

Sussex Montessori students take part in the ribbon cutting during the scaled-down dedication Wednesday marking the dedication of new construction at the school campus in Seaford.

Seaford Mayor David Genshaw has family ties to the new school.

“This is just a fabulous campus, and you can see the great opportunity. Fortunately, for me, I have two grandchildren (twins, age 7, who are second-graders) attending this school. So, I get firsthand knowledge of how things are going. They love it out here. They love the kids. They love the openness. The teachers teach at a different style. It seems to fit their personalities,” he said.

“We’re excited. This is a great asset to have there in Seaford.”

Sean Steward, a founding board member for Sussex Montessori, has an 8-year-old daughter who is a Montessori third-grader.

“What makes Montessori method so special is that it teaches from the child’s natural learning perspective,” said Mr. Steward. “They learn by instruction from a teacher, in some cases, parents. They also learn from the other pupils. Kids enjoy learning but they also enjoy teaching what they learned. Montessori School encourages them to learn but then teach it to the other students, which reinforces the lessons that they have already learned.”

Lisa Coldiron, Sussex Montessori head of school, said the Montessori methodology is geared to “allow the child’s natural curiosity to really shine” and honor “the way children are meant to learn.”

“Montessori offers a unique learning style which is ideal for many children,” said Dr. Bunting. “I am really excited because the only Montessori option has been in the Wilmington area. Now our children in the lower half of the state have the option of participating in Montessori learning experience.”

Initial plans were for a K-5 school. Sixth grade was subsequently added.

Renovation of the former carriage house (now food service and multipurpose room) and farmhouse (administration building) were included in Sussex Montessori’s Phase 1 plan.

“What we noticed from the community was parents felt more comfortable in an elementary setting with one more year,” said Mr. Steward. “It gives the sixth-graders one last year of being leaders in the classroom. So, when they leave here, and they go into the local middle schools, we hope that those kids will then become leaders in those classrooms and be able to change the environment in those classrooms and be leaders.”

Some children are experiencing Montessori education remotely and others are coming to school.

COVID did throw a curve to the initial Sussex Montessori construction game plan. Several modular classroom units now sit empty on the campus of Stein Highway, having been utilized in September and October.

“When we got to May, COVID slowed up our construction. So, we were not going to be able to complete in time for what the law requires, which is a certificate of occupancy on June 15,” said Ms. Zankowsky.

“So, we put the modulars on the property to be sure that we would be able to meet that deadline. The children actually spent the first two months of the school year in a hybrid model in those modulars, coming to school. Then the classrooms were finished Nov. 1 and we moved the first week of November.”

“It’s really impressive how through the COVID challenges that we have had, the founding board and the supporters of this school have been able to stay on schedule and open as planned, through their perseverance and determination,” said Dr. Bunting. “The school has been functioning this year and I hear very positive comments from people who are involved. I think Western Sussex is delighted to be the home of a Montessori program.”

One of Sussex Montessori School’s newly constructed quads and classrooms recently welcomed students in grades K-3.

Founded in Italy by Maria Montessori in the early 1900s, Montessori education philosophy fosters rigorous, self-motivated growth for children and adolescents in all areas of their development, with a goal to nurture each child’s natural desire for knowledge, understanding and respect.

A campaign is underway to raise $5.9 million of the total $10 million school construction cost to complete Phase 2 renovations (barn renovations and additional classrooms for grades four through six).

Efforts to bring Montessori to the southern part of Delaware began several years ago.

“We started talking about Montessori coming to Seaford back about five years ago. So, to think that they worked this hard and this long to pull money together, they really did a fabulous job,” said Mayor Genshaw.

The campus is located on property at 24970 Dairy Lane that once was home to a dairy farm, a mill and more recently a gift shop/retail business.

“It took us while to find a location,” said Mr. Steward. “We looked at over 30 different properties.”