This past fall saw the opening of Alyssum Montessori School in downtown Fort Wayne. The school purposely chose a downtown location as the school's founders, Sara Gensic and Suzy Ulmer, saw a great opportunity to be part of Fort Wayne's downtown revitalization, and a way to include kids in the developing creative urban environment.
“We saw that being in the city center was great because we would be able to allow the students to take advantage of everything located nearby–a great outdoor play space with Parkview Field, the public library two blocks away and the opportunity to easily plan field trips,” Ulmer said.
The school is part of the Wildflower Schools network and the first to be in Indiana. Wildflower Schools was founded in 2014 by a professor in the Media Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and offers a network of school programs that emphasize a Montessori approach to learning, small enrollments and storefront locations.
The Wildflower schools are encouraged to make use of community resources such as public parks and libraries to begin building connection between the children and their community.
“Wildflower Schools want its schools to be small and nested within the community,” Ulmer said. “If the students participate and connect with the community, they will develop positive memories and will continue to care about maintaining a vibrant community as they get older.”
All Wildflower schools are street-facing and accessible, light-filled spaces on walkable streets, and invite community members to visually see the children working and learning.
The storefront setting increases the presence of children and families in the community, and a more narrow geographic focus supports walking to and from school, relying on public playgrounds, and other civic spaces.
Wildflower is working to expand the definition of stakeholders beyond the families it directly serves, and works to make the surrounding communities stronger and healthier for children.
Of the families with children enrolled in Alyssum Montessori School, about half live downtown or in the nearby 46807 and 46805 ZIP codes, and half have parents who work downtown. Ulmer and Gensic have about 15 years of teaching experience in a Montessori setting, and are providing a learning environment for children ages 3 through 9.
“We knew that parents were looking for an educational setting that aligns with the way children naturally learn,” Ulmer said. The American Montessori school program encourages peer learning by placing children of multiple ages together in the same classroom, providing uninterrupted time for students to work on things that interest them and offering teacher-guided choices for activities.
Ulmer knew there was a need in Fort Wayne for more Montessori schools because both Bunche Montessori Early Childhood Center and Towles Intermediate School in Fort Wayne Community Schools have waiting lists.
Alyssum Montessori looks to blur the boundaries between home, school and community into a seamless experience.
“We have been overwhelmed by the amount of support the school has gotten. It's like 'Mister Roger's Neighborhood' with people reaching out to us to create meaningful community connections,” Ulmer said.
Montessori schools in Fort Wayne have a rich history, and thus, parents are familiar with its approach to learning. Bluffview Montessori School was one of the first to open a private Montessori preschool in 1967, as part of the renaissance of American Montessori education that took place in the 1960s. It expanded to include elementary school students in 1987, and in 1993, it became the first Montessori charter school in the U.S. It expanded to serve middle school students in 1998.
Fort Wayne's oldest Montessori school is MLK Montessori School founded in 1968. And Bunche Montessori Early Childhood Center was granted accreditation from the American Montessori Society in 2003, becoming the only public Montessori school in the U.S. to receive such status.
Because Alyssum Montessori is designed to serve children from diverse backgrounds, it received Indiana State Board of Education approval to participate in the Choice Scholarship voucher program, which allows qualifying families to use a state education voucher to pay for their children's tuition. Ulmer explained although there is a need for more Montessori programs in Fort Wayne, her goal for Alyssum is to keep it small.
“I don't want to see our school get bigger,” Ulmer said, “but would rather like to see other teachers decide to create their own Montessori programs.”