A brief history of the Montessori Academy

Private School Education

Early Staff 1966: (from left) Carolyn Shaw, 2nd Primary teacher; Lillian Gauvry, 1st assistant and eventually the school’s 1st Elementary teacher; Ellen Fox, Head of School; Miriam “Nikki” Harp, 1st Primary teacher.

Who would have ever thought that a neighborhood gathering of moms with young children would result in the school known today as the Montessori Academy?

Mothers have always enjoyed getting together to visit as their little ones play and interact.  However, in the early 1960′s, Ellen Fox, (then Ellen Keith), and a neighbor, Joan Murphy, frequently shared their views on various educational philosophies.  They ultimately became aware of Montessori.  With interest piqued, they organized a study group to further educate themselves on the Montessori philosophy, and found that there were many other mothers who were equally interested in a different educational method for their children.   The group began reading books by and about Maria Montessori, and even started implementing some of her methods with their children via play groups.

A few of the study group members attended lectures given by Mother Isabel Eugenie, AMI teacher trainer in the Montessori Department at the Academy of the Assumption at Raven Hill, Philadelphia.  Mother Isabel, a woman then in her 70′s, had actually been trained by and worked alongside Dr. Montessori.  The more the mothers learned, the more they desired a Montessori education for their own children.  How could this be achieved?

At that time there were very few Montessori schools in existence in the United States, and most Montessori teachers were trained outside of America, many in Ireland, Italy or India.  Upon discovering that most of these early schools had been started by parents, some of the study group became convinced that they could do the same!  To begin a school, they needed a teacher.  They needed a classroom.  They needed the special Montessori learning materials.  As fate would have it, despite their rarity in 1965, an AMI trained Montessori Teacher had been introduced to the group.  The teacher, Miriam “Nikki” Harp, had recently moved to Haddonfield, and was delighted to join the group to help establish a school in the area.  A few of the mothers namely, Marie Monaco, Ellen Fox and Barbara Bichaylo, encouraged by the rest of the group, began to actively search for a location.

As a result of their efforts, on October 20, 1965, Infanta Montessori School opened with 15 students in a newly constructed classroom in the Corpus Christi School in Willingboro.  A lease was signed for $45 for one year, which included utilities and janitorial services!  The school had its very own entrance, bathroom and even a play yard.  The one caveat was that the school could only occupy the space for one year, as the Corpus Christie School would then need the classroom for their own use.

The following year, a second teacher, Carolyn Shaw, joined the staff.  The growing school moved to the New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Rancocas Woods in June 1966.  It then boasted two classes of 25 children each, plus a summer class.  By the end of that year, the church decided to start its own nursery school, so another location was needed.

The Barn Arts Center, located on the former working farm of the historic Conrow estate on the just-paved Conrow Road in Delran seemed like the perfect setting, with bucolic meadows of grazing cows from the local Millside Dairy Farm.  Although adult and children’s art classes and the Burlington County Footlighters Theatre Group occupied part of the building, there was certainly room for Montessori classrooms.  And so, during the summer of 1967, Infanta Montessori School rented two large rooms in the ‘Barn” and the students, now sixty some in number,  enjoyed helping feed the horses, cows, pigs, goats and sheep which were added over the next few years.  The five and six year old afternoon students also liked to sneak a peek into the Thursday afternoon Adult Art Class that occupied an adjacent room.

In 1968, a satellite school was established in rented space in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Our Savior, Haddonfield. Ellen approached the presiding minister, who supported the project of providing Montessori education to the area’s children.  That minister left the parish during that year, and the church chose not to renew the lease.  As another site was not available in the Haddonfield area, many of those students joined the Delran location. Because of that auxiliary site, the school’s numbers swelled, prompting us to then have 3 classes.

By 1970 the school had grown to four classes, and the dream of adding an elementary class was realized.  In 1973, extended care was added to accommodate those parents whose children needed care before and after the regular school day.  The school continued to expand. In 1990 a Toddler Class was added, and at the same time the school’s name was changed to Montessori Academy.  Through the years, chorus, Spanish and gym classes were added to round out the curriculum and drama, golf, yoga, and piano classes were added as after-school enrichment options.  In 2007, an Adolescent Program for ages 12-15 years was inaugurated.  Currently, there are approximately 130 students enrolled in the school.

Alumni who visit the Montessori Academy today are amazed to behold the incredible transformation of the Barn Arts Center!  The school now has three stories of classrooms, kitchens, greenhouses, offices, and meeting rooms. The grassy fields have become gardens abundant with vegetables, trees, shrubs, flowers, herbs and wildlife.  There are even goats, sheep, hens, guinea fowl, rabbits and guinea pigs about for the children to feed and care for, which in turn, gives them a sense of responsibility.  The nature trail and new playgrounds are favorites of all the children.

The Montessori Academy, begun by a small group of parents interested in an education which would best develop their children’s potential, continues to grow.  There will be much more history to write. .