Montessori school in Savoy celebrates 50 years

SAVOY — The Montessori School of Champaign-Urbana is celebrating its 50th anniversary next weekend, and is hoping former students, parents of students, teachers and even volunteers will attend the festivities.

The celebration will include a 3 p.m. ceremony Saturday at the Savoy Recreation Center, 402 Graham Drive, Savoy, and an open house at the school from 5 to 6 p.m.

The school is at 1403 Regency Drive East, Savoy.

The ceremony will include Irene Voros, the first teacher at the school, and JoAnn Hesselmann-Smith, who was the founder of the study group from which the school started.

Child entertainment during the ceremony will be provided.

The school is also hoping to collect 50 bags of food for the Eastern Illinois Food Bank, so you may bring donations to the open house after the ceremony.

It's been 50 years since the school started in Champaign, and more than 25 since it's been located at a building on Regency Drive East in Savoy.

All its teachers have been there at least 10 years, with some who have been there 25 years, said administrator Deborah Balsbaugh.

"What makes us special is our staff," Balsbaugh said. "They are committed. ... They love what they do and show constant concern for the children in their care."

Kids enjoy their time at the school so much they're eager to return, even as teens, she said.

The school is also parent-owned, she said, and is run by a board made up of parents.

Balsbaugh said the school is one of the oldest in the country that is modeled on the teachings of Maria Montessori.

The school started as a study group, then was located at an old farm school in Champaign where the Assembly Hall is now located. After moving from there, the school met in someone's home, then moved to the old Perkins School on Broadmoor Drive in Champaign, where another childcare facility is now located.

Balsbaugh said the Montessori method has been around for more than 100 years, and focuses on allowing children to learn individually and stay on a certain topic for as long as it holds their interest.

Classrooms at the Savoy school mix students ages 3 through 6, and allow them to lead and teach each other. Classes use materials prepared specifically for Montessori classrooms, like glass beads that are paired together to make certain numbers, so students can experience, for example, what 1,000 beads look like together.

Other materials are carefully controlled, as well, she said. For example, if objects are meant to teach color, they're all exactly the same except for the color.

Other learning activities are done with movement and singing, Balsbaugh said, to engage students as they learn. The school emphasizes independence for the children, and not doing things for children that they're capable of themselves.

The school also offers a parent-toddler class for students between the ages of 15 months and 3 years. It meets for an hour and a half each week.

Rita Young, who was a teacher and administrator at the school for 20 years, said she's looking forward to Saturday's celebration.

"It's a time, I think, when people can gather together from all different years that the school was in existence and just have some camaraderie and renew old acquaintances," Young said.

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