The school provides a tuition-free Montessori education, starting this fall with grades K-3, with plans to add a grade each year up to grade 6.

The leaders at Sussex Montessori School are preparing to open for the school’s first year in the middle of all the changes caused by the coronavirus restrictions.

Located in beautiful western Sussex County, the school provides tuition-free, Montessori education to students in grades K-6. Opening this fall with more than 260 students in grades K-3, the school will add a grade each subsequent year up to grade 6.

Head of School Lisa Coldiron said the staff is “forging ahead, building a strong program that is focused on academic excellence, innovative and advanced learning, and holistic child development.”

“We are very focused on enhancing public education and choice in Southern Delaware, inspiring the next generation of young, innovative leaders, and cultivating a global community of empathetic citizens and lifelong learners,” she said.

Community Engagement Specialist Kaneisha Trott said the benefits of a Montessori education will help children whose academic lives have been disrupted by recent changes.

“Our multi-aged classrooms, access to a spectrum of curricula and materials, and personalized learning approach meets the children where they are and ensures they continue learning at the pace they’re ready for,” Trott said.

Coldiron and Trott answered questions about the work being done at the school.

How have the coronavirus restrictions affected your efforts to open this fall?

The coronavirus pandemic came during the peak time of our student enrollment, construction, community outreach and parent engagement. There were many deadlines we had to meet to ensure we met the qualifications to open the school in the fall, and the pandemic created numerous challenges, inconveniences, and uncertainty.

As result of the COVID shutdown, we’ve had to close our offices, halt community outreach efforts, cancel interest meetings, parent tours, and welcome/registration events, as well as abruptly shift our office spaces and communications to keep families engaged and informed.

We were grateful for the governor’s decision to allow our construction crews and facilities team to continue working during the state of emergency; however, the pace of work is slower due to requirements for social distancing.

How have you adjusted to the changes?

Though our offices are closed, our staff members remain diligent and available around the clock by phone, text, email and virtual communications to answer questions and provide support to parents. We made sure our registration information forms, important information and updates were available on all of our digital platforms (website, social media), and we sent frequent updates through email, text, and mail to make sure parents had the answers to their questions.

We shifted interviews and events online and continued to host numerous virtual family meetings each month through Zoom to keep families informed and updated. We called/mailed correspondence to parents who had internet troubles. Although we were unable to interact in person (face to face), we maintained the personal touch through frequent communications and the positive reassurance that we are here to support and assist our families every step of the way.

We’ve conducted surveys and collected important information about our families’ internet usage and capabilities, to identify internet deserts and dead zones (which is a big issue in Western Sussex County where the majority of our families live) – all this to assist our families with gaining internet access/connections and identify other creative approaches should remote learning be implemented/extended into the fall.

We’ve considered new approaches to our Montessori model of “hands-on” education through special learning materials and the interactive, social environment that is key to child development. We now had to figure out, how can we recreate these specialized learning tools for access and use within the home? How can we foster social and emotional development within children when they are physically distant?

Despite the challenges, uncertainties, and concerns, we have made it our focus to have proper plans developed to ensure a strong, child-centered, progressive Montessori program in place in order to welcome our students, staff and families in the fall.

What steps are you taking to prepare for opening, either in person or online?

For our curriculum, we are reaching out to state and national leaders to glean best practices for remote learning, should we be in this position in the fall. We are regularly consulting with heads of Montessori schools (within the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector) to discuss and develop a robust distance learning plan, curricula, and learning materials for our Montessori program. We will be prepared for distance learning – whether through smaller groups of students attending in different shifts or by virtual learning at home.

We are developing policies and procedures using the recommended protocols for safety and sanitation. Moreover, we are reviewing the use of both temporary and permanent structures to serve as expanded/additional learning spaces should we need to modify/reduce the classroom sizes or the arrangement of furniture.

One really cool feature of our school’s campus, and the unique Montessori curriculum in general, is the outdoor classroom! Montessori uses the outdoors for hands-on, real-life experiential learning. Our raised garden beds will be in place in September which will be managed by and for the children. Additionally, we are currently looking at having several gazebos build on the campus for outdoor learning. This will be a place for children to do their botany lessons, quiet reading, journal writing, drafting plays, in small groups for optimal health and safety. The outdoor gazebos will be our outdoor classrooms and allow us even more “open space” to conduct lessons with our students!

As we navigate the new procedures and ensure that everyone working on the project remains healthy and safe, we have made the decision to activate a contingency plan. This plan will allow us to continue to move forward on the permanent school structures while ensuring that we meet the state requirements for a Certificate of Occupancy by June 15, 2020. Most importantly, it will allow us to ensure our school year starts without delay and we can welcome our students, staff, and families as planned.

Can you talk about success stories despite the restrictions?

While virtual meetings cannot take the place of in-person meetings, they have proven quite effective in connecting with and informing our parents across Sussex County. This is especially helpful for those experiencing certain barriers (i.e. transportation and conflicting work/family schedules) which makes face-to-face interaction more difficult. Moreover, we have been able to host activities like virtual Storytime and virtual meet and greets with the children and families. We are planning more of these creative and fun activities to do with the families throughout the summer months.

Furthermore, we have been able to use modern day technology in more ways than we initially planned, and it’s been really helpful in making sure our parents stay connected, informed, and involved throughout the registration process. We are happy to share that during the shutdown, we were able to successfully enroll 262 first-year students (grades K-3) for the 2020-2021 school year. We are excited and sincerely looking forward to meeting all of our families in the fall!