Wildwood Montessori School plans for move to new facility this summer

Jessica Stölen-Jacobson
Montevideo American-News

The Montevideo Economic Development Administration (EDA) met last week, hearing a request from Wildwood Montessori School for financial assistance with the school's plans to expand. Wildwood Montessori School, founded three years ago, is currently operated in a home on South 5th Street, known locally as the old Hunt Mansion. The school currently serves thirteen students, and for the last two years, the board has been discussing whether to remodel the house currently serving the students or move to a new location. It was decided that a move was the best option, and so the board approached Jim Zenk and Pam Baukol about the idea of using the property they own in the East Acres complex that was previously a dental office. The couple agreed and set about doing the work to gut and entirely remodel the facility to the school’s required specifications, adding an infant room, toddler room, and preschool room to meet state guidelines required for Wildwood Montessori to become a center. The move and expansion include a need for additional licensing to be able to accommodate 42 children. “There are many regulations in terms of the space and health department regulations with the kitchen so it was a big ask of the Zenk and Baukol families for this build out and they graciously came forward,” says Wildwood Montessori board member Patrick Moore. The school signed the lease and took possession of the building last month. 

The progression from 13 children to 42 children (including 8 infants, 14 toddlers and 20 preschoolers) being served by the facility will not happen overnight, however, and that gap in time between the school obtaining their licensing, equipment, training new staff, and other such necessary steps to gain licensing before working up to 42 children over the course of a couple of years presents a financial challenge. “In order to get the state licensure, you have to have all the furnishings and equipment for 42 students and you have to have space for 42 students,” says Moore. “Not only is there this dire need for childcare, it’s no longer a nice thing to have - it’s an essential part of any community’s economic growth and development. There are programs to help parents pay for childcare, but no program to help set up a center like ours.”

Because of this, Wildwood Montessori has been working quietly to collect donations locally, raising funds from Ice Castle Fish Houses, Montevideo Foundation, Rekow Management (now MJT Associates), and a loan from First Children’s Finance. Most recently, the MCDC offered both a $10,000 grant and a $10,000 loan at two percent interest deferred for 18 months, and at last week’s meeting, the EDA offered an additional loan for the same amount under the same parameters as well as a $5,000 grant. Over the weekend, an anonymous donor stepped forward with a generous offer of an $80,000 Challenge Grant, which could match up to $40,000 in donations raised from the community and businesses. The funds raised to be matched will not include local government contributions and will not include loan amounts, so Wildwood Montessori School is looking to the local community to help raise those funds. 

Community & Business Development Specialist for the City of Montevideo, Ben Dolan, said, “In the city, state and the whole nation there’s a daycare crisis. The council and the EDA have talked bout helping daycare for a long time and this was an opportunity. The two groups see it as an investment into the city by helping businesses by having daycare available. Housing and daycare are the big things you need to help businesses in the area. We just started building an apartment building and we’ve got the veteran’s homecoming in, and now we’re working on a decent-sized daycare facility.”

The funds through those organizations help to cover the gap for the immediate need of $40,000 to obtain the equipment and licensing needed now, and so the equipment needed is already on order, but the school still needs to raise additional funds for a total of $95,000 to cover the shortages of training, staffing, and opening while working up to full capacity. Because the school is a non-profit, the loans could present a challenge to their finances and so they hope to raise funding to cover those loans as well. 

For those curious as to the meaning of Montessori, Wildwood Montessori Executive Director Katie Pieh explains that the philosophy of Montessori is that education begins at birth. “Dr. [Maria] Montessori felt it was important to have respect for children and to respect the work that they are doing,” says Pieh. “Schooling is preparation for life.” So while the center operates as a daycare, it also operates as a school. “The way that we envision education in America is rows of desks and then a teacher’s desk up front - and there’s no room in that environment for an infant, but if we look at education as preparation for life, then, of course, we have to start with infancy. We start preparing a child for learning how to eat, we prepare a child for how to use the bathroom and we prepare a child for how to interact with other people, and so under the Montessori method, school begins right from the start. In our regular school system in America, we are considered child care because we see school as starting at pre-school.” While Wildwood Montessori’s school day runs from 8:30 in the morning to 3:00 in the afternoon, they have before-care and after-care from 7:30 to 5:30 that operates as a free-play environment. Wildwood Montessori provides this education for infants through age six. 

As an example of the Montessori method, Pieh outlines some of the various skills practiced in the separate age groups. “There is a reason the infant room only has materials in the primary colors, there is a logic behind the placement of items on the shelves, and there is research to back it up. In the infant room, it is important that we say please and thank you to these new human beings.”

In the toddler room, practical life skills are practiced. “Making your snack, setting your place at the table, washing your dish, washing a table, planting flowers,” Pieh says. “All of these build coordination, confidence, concentration - which will be needed to complete long cycles of learning in the three to six classroom and beyond.”

In the three to six-year-old classroom, Pieh says the didactic materials are astounding. “They are self-correcting and precise. For example, the child first learns quantity through the number rods - carrying over each rod which gets longer and longer, you can FEEL how big that number is. Each time they repeatedly encounter them, the dendrites on their neurons grow and the myelin sheath becomes thicker making the information travel faster and easier to the brain. Quantities and spatial awareness become muscle memory,” she says. 

Steps for enrollment are visiting the school’s website and filling out an application. Once an application is approved, parents are invited to tour the facility and are provided the school's income-based tuition scale and calendar before signing a contract. The school hopes to begin its summer program in the new facility in July. Plans for the new center are to serve 30 students by the fall of 2021, reaching full capacity by 2023.

The Wildwood-Montessori School is an IRS 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, and so businesses or individuals contributions are tax deductible, and will be recognized on a display featured prominently in the new center.

Interested donors can give online via https://www.givemn.org/organization/Wildwood-Montessori-School-1 or call the following Wildwood board members: Karen Kling 320-295 9062, Patrick Moore 320-841-1487, Mary Saeger 320-905-0126 or Katie Pieh 862-754-4391.