Serving the Under-Served with Quality and Single Minded Passion
Meet Beth Holley, the founder of Renaissance Montessori School.
As a young 20-something, she was invited to visit a Montessori school. Instinctively, she recognized the missing elements from her own education.
She was quick to notice the beauty in the environment, the freedom of movement and of choice, the quiet enthusiasm of the teacher, the attractive and seemingly advanced learning materials, and the calmness of the children.
Iintrigued, she set out to learn more about the method.
That was the beginning of Beth’s love affair with the Montessori method and that love affair culminated in her starting her own Montessori school in the year 1992.
With no business experience whatsoever, all that Beth had with her was her experience as a lead 3-6 teacher and the passion to serve.
When she was approached by a group of parents who wanted a Montessori school in an under-served semi-urban area of a large metropolitan area, she knew she had to say yes.
Putting Together the Plan for Starting a Montessori School
“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
While Beth had the fire and the drive to start her Montessori school, it wouldn’t have happened if she didn’t approach it in a systematic manner.
First and foremost, she and the team of dedicated parents worked on finding a workable facility, making sure it met daycare and other occupancy requirements such as zoning, adequate square footage, number of bathrooms, number of exits, fire marshal approval, etc.
They decided to rent a church wing, which turned out to be a good choice, because many of the items on their checklist were already in place or grandfathered in as part of the church operation.
Next, they worked on obtaining liability and property insurance. Later down the road, they added business interruption insurance, and accident insurance. They asked an established Montessori school to refer them to an insurance agent who was versed in school needs and could advise on the proper amount of coverage.
Third, having already obtained a copy of day care licensing regulations, they set about grooming the facility and buying supplies to meet day care requirements.
Judicious with their resources, they spent $0 on altering their first facility, and instead used the $5000 of pooled money that they had on buying materials and playground improvements. A big chunk of the startup funds went towards a 4’ high fence to meet day care regulations.
Through word-of-mouth, they found a small school two states away that was liquidating and bought all their materials sight-unseen. They were well used but in decent condition.
They were also lucky to find another retired Montessori teacher who had kept all her small tables and chairs. She let them borrow them for one year, until they could afford to get their own.
The moral of the story, Beth says, is: talk to everyone, ask for everything, and see what materializes. Reach out, share, and ask.
The Crucial First Year of Starting a Montessori School
They say a child’s first year is the most crucial. This is also true for your Montessori school!
It’s important to have realistic expectations, know that there won’t be overnight success and realize that you will need to have single-minded focus and long hours of hard work, even before the first student walks into class.
In its first year, the school began with twelve students aged 3-6, two adults, and operated half days (8am-12noon), Monday-Friday.
They had worked and planned all summer long and opened in the fall, and so were able to recruit those first twelve students over the summer months, mostly by word-of-mouth.
The “founding parents”promoted it among their friends.
Beth advises that if you’re starting from scratch, get a few families on board with the project in advance, involve them, and let them become ambassadors for the new school.
Beth and her band of parents blanketed numerous new subdivisions with info packets at the sales offices, and placed nicely designed flyers in every facility that would allow them. Think, libraries, restaurants, grocery stores, doctor’s offices, etc..
As time went on, their marketing tactics got more sophisticated. They bought a monthly ad in Parent Magazine, a free magazine distributed widely throughout their city. Household use of the Internet was still rather new, but they made sure to get on any Internet school directories, and to get a nicely designed website. Smart and savvy, she also used Google ads to reach people searching for Montessori schools in that area.
Additionally, they bought qualified lists with specified zip codes, households with children ages 0-3, and annual income of $50K+ and used them to mail beautiful Open House postcard invitations. This got results! Their Open Houses were usually packed and school was on!
The Emotional Journey
When starting any business venture, the emotional journey is integral, and most intensely so during the first year. While starting a Montessori school is indeed incredibly satisfying, it is not without challenges.
As a young woman Beth was unafraid of risk and felt she had absolutely nothing to lose. They had made the wise decision not to borrow anything for this project. She didn’t have the responsibilities of a family at the time and was able to spend innumerable hours on the project, day and night.
In fact, she credits their continued success over the years to their untiring efforts in the first three years.
In her words, “Single-minded obsession pays off!”
Beth’s biggest challenge was doing it all: teaching, administration work, business management, janitorial, you name it! But at the end of the day, the deep satisfaction of knowing that she was delivering a quality program to an under-served area made everything worth it.
Tips and Takeaways
Things to Keep in Mind When Starting and Running a Montessori School
We couldn’t let you go without some crucial and not-to-be-ignored tips and takeaways from our interaction with Beth Holley. Her years of experience as the head of her school resulted in Renaissance Montessori growing by leaps and bounds. When she retired in 2007, the school was fully enrolled with two 3-6 classrooms, one lower elementary and one upper elementary classroom.
They were in a new church wing, licensed for 112 children, and they operated 7:30am-6:00pm, providing full before and after school services.
So, here are Beth Holley’s best tips for marketing your school, finding and training your staff, managing parent education and most importantly, doing it all.
First, try to pick a part of town that is not saturated with childcare and/or Montessori schools. Being the first in an area will help your school grow naturally. That said, unless you are subsidized, choose an area in which incomes can support childcare.
Create a professionally designed Internet presence, and use social media.
If possible, choose a highly visible location. The school’s second facility was on a main thoroughfare and the daily traffic count was extremely high. “It drove traffic (pun-intended) to our school!” If zoning allows, invest in a professional outdoor sign, and use a marquee to announce Open Houses, etc. to make sure you attract passers by.
Conduct at least two Open Houses a year, and use targeted direct mail campaigns to send out well-designed postcard invitations.
Place ads in online and print parent publications.
Beth’s best advice however is to have a top quality program that people are happy to refer. Nothing replaces an excellent program that grows by word-of-mouth. Strive to provide excellence in childcare, education, and service. Spread goodwill and become part of the community by involving your school in community service projects.
Maintain communication with any teacher-training centers in your state. Let them know your needs.
You must be willing to pay a decent wage and/or offer benefits to maintain quality staff who stay with you over the years. This is key to a stable, quality program.
Make parent education nights fun! Have food. People always show up for food. And provide childcare!
Use social media to educate parents.
Maintain a school blog that shows children at work! You can run a private blog just for the school community. Occasionally link to short and informative articles.
Doing it all, finding balance and boosting productivity…
Delegate! It will make life so much easier.
As soon as you can squeeze some money out for a much needed service, hire someone. You can then devote your time to the things that will grow the school and make that hired professional affordable.
For additional reading, Beth recommends The Whole-School Montessori Handbook (1999) by Kahn, Dubble, and Pendleton. It outlines the founding, administration, and development of a Montessori school. While, it may be getting a little dated, most of the principles are timeless and will always apply.
Also, look for the various online administration courses/webinars now offered by The Montessori Foundation.