By Morgan Holt
Catherine Lueptow’s 12 years at Woods Creek Montessori were “lovely,” the former Primary I lead teacher says. But this year, schoolhouse politics and conflicting teaching philosophies pushed her to create a school all her own.
On Sept. 6 she opened EarthSong Community School to children 2½ to 6 years old and has nine students currently enrolled. Five came from Woods Creek Montessori, three from the community and one is Lueptow’s granddaughter.
The director of Woods Creek Montessori for the past three years, Christi Crittenden, said the loss of students did not hurt the school, which has been operating for 20 years.
“Of course losing those students affected us,” said Crittenden. “But when you have 50-60 students, we’re doing well.”
Wythe Whiting was one of the parents who chose to follow Lueptow to her new location on Lewis Street in Lexington. Lueptow has taught two of Whiting’s children, a son who graduated from Woods Creek Montessori, and a daughter, who is currently enrolled in kindergarten at EarthSong.
Whiting said his children’s experience at Woods Creek Montessori was “fabulous.” But he said he is drawn to Lueptow as an educator and is happy with the way her school came together.
“[Lueptow] just gets the way that kids think,” he said. “She knows how to stimulate their learning and makes it seem effortless.”
Whiting said the two schools have similar learning materials and education philosophies. The Montessori method, developed by Italian educator Maria Montessori a century ago, is child-driven. While traditional education is often standardized, the Montessori method allows for a task-centered, individualized teaching of each child, with frequent one-on-one interaction.
Lueptow is EarthSong’s only certified Montessori teacher, a qualification she said isn’t necessary for all of the school’s teachers.
“Teaching Montessori requires a certain disposition,” she said. “It’s not based on education or training, but is a natural, easy fit. You either have it or you don’t. Credentials don’t make the teacher. What’s in your heart makes the teacher.”
Financial troubles addressed
At EarthSong, Lueptow focuses on offering an education to every child in the community, regardless of income. One of her students receives 100 percent subsidized tuition. The child’s parents help care for the grounds and facilities.
Lueptow said the Woods Creek Montessori changed from a community school with staff dedicated to serving as many children as possible on an individual basis to a larger school with different priorities.
“We had a director without much business background who let the financial aspect of the school slip,” Lueptow said, referring to the late 1990s. “So we went through a period where the financial parts needed to be emphasized over the school and community. The model of how the school was governed changed. It went from a cooperative organization to more of a traditional-business model where one person was in charge.”
Woods Creek Montessori almost closed in 2009 because of financial troubles, Crittenden said. Fundraisers, adjusted staff schedules and a focus on finances helped keep the school open, she said.
Genelle Gertz, a parent whose son attended Woods Creek Montessori but never had Lueptow as a teacher, said a stronger focus on finances was exactly what the school needed.
Offering a choice to parents
Crittenden, who describes her relationship with Lueptow as “professional,” said she was not surprised when Lueptow decided to leave Woods Creek Montessori.
“She’s been wanting to do this for years,” said Crittenden. “I’m glad for her to have the opportunity to step out and do something that she’s dreamed of doing.”
Lueptow insists she did not leave Woods Creek Montessori to compete with her former employer. At EarthSong, she said, students are in a smaller, more close-knit environment, where parents are encouraged to get directly involved. Lueptow is fond of the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.”
“What they [Woods Creek Montessori] do is fabulous,” Lueptow said. “There is a very strong demand for the approach that is embodied in their school. But I’m trying to offer an alternative.”
Lueptow’s teaching methods focus on the core values of community-building and stewardship of the earth. She said she strives to instill social skills, the ability to compromise and the realization that every part of creation has a role to play in the world—and demands respect. Students are taught that even a rock has a story to tell, shown by every crack on its surface.
“It helps them to relate to the natural world in a way that is personal and emotional,” she said. “It’s not just something there for us to conquer and master but a part of who we are.”
Haley Sigler, a parent and president of the Woods Creek Montessori school board, said there is room for more than one Montessori school in Lexington.
“Parents appreciate choice,” she said. “We’re lucky to have so many quality options.”
Moving beyond a “difficult spring”
Like Woods Creek Montessori, EarthSong relies on people in the Lexington and Rockbridge area to expose students to many topics. Students have had visits with staff from a local dance studio, an herbalist, organic gardeners, artists and a geologist at Washington and Lee, among others.
“Our goal is to have adults model for the children how wonderful it is to find a career you love and express the passion you feel,” said Lueptow.
Not everyone in the community supports Lueptow’s decision to leave Woods Creek Montessori.
Gertz spoke against the new school at a Lexington Planning Commission meeting in April. “We already had that kind of teaching available,” she said. “[EarthSong] is drawing away from resources rather than adding to them.”
She also said the new school created tensions among parents and made for a “pretty difficult spring.”
Lueptow said she hopes things will settle down, and she plans to keep doing what she’s doing for students.
“We’re the gardeners,” she said. “We plant the seed and nurture it, but they’re the ones who really create who they are.”