Before Heartwood Montessori School opened in downtown Cary, Sue Daniel helped teach up to 40 children at a time in her home every day.
Daniel, the school’s founder, and her husband, Jimmy Wright, knocked out walls in their farmhouse on Holly Springs Road to make room for two classrooms. They built an addition on the back of the house to be used as a library. They even slept on a futon so they could fold it back up in the morning and the children would have a couch.
“It was wild,” said Daniel, now 64. “It was the best place. But it couldn’t last forever.”
Eventually, the students and teachers of Heartwood Montessori outgrew the farmhouse as well as a church on Western Boulevard, where the older students were taught.
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Twelve years ago, through Daniel’s dedication and the generosity of students’ parents, Heartwood Montessori moved to its current location on the corner of Byrum Street and Kildaire Farm Road in downtown Cary.
The school’s unconventional locations are just part of its history, and they reflect how far the school has come in its 25 years.
The school that began with three teachers and 32 students now has 27 teachers and 180 students. The students range in age from 18 months to 18 years old. And Daniel still knows them all by name.
“She’s a great administrator,” said Phillip Young, whose 11-year-old daughter, Maya, has been attending Heartwood since she was 18 months old. “(That) is why it has existed for as long as it has. In a lot of ways, it exists because of the strength of her personality.”
Daniel opened Heartwood Montessori in August 1991. The Montessori Model of education is a child-centered approach that encourages children to learn through self-motivation, using hands-on learning in a multi-age setting.
When Heartwood opened, it was one of the few Montessori schools in Wake County, but Montessori programs have since expanded throughout the Triangle to public, charter and private schools.
Heartwood got its start at Cary Christian Church on Walnut Street, thanks to a $45,000 loan from Rip and Lizette Hardie, one of the first families to send their children to the school. The school remained there for four years before the church started its own preschool.
A myriad of catastrophes – from floods to snakes in the bathrooms – dotted the first half of the school’s history as it moved through four different churches.
“We paid our dues, and we worked hard for many years in those different churches,” Daniel said.
But the biggest challenge was trying to find a permanent location for the school that was affordable and gave the school room to grow. A cluster of buildings, including a former day care, in downtown Cary turned out to be the perfect spot.
The property’s $750,000 price tag was too expensive for Daniel to afford the down payment on her own. Thirty families contributed a combined $75,000 to make the purchase possible. Daniel has since paid everyone back.
“It was really a group effort from the parents who, once again, got us here,” Daniel said. “We built our sixth playground when we moved here. We built playgrounds wherever we went. This is our final one hopefully.”
A family atmosphere
After 25 years, Daniel attributes the school’s continued success to its community atmosphere.
“I think most people describe our school as being a warm and nurturing place,” she said. “Not so much of a business. It’s more of a family atmosphere.”
Daniel encourages parents to participate in their child’s education any way they can, including talking to students about their professions, working in the garden or chaperoning field trips.
Young, in particular, has pitched in at the school several times, including building a fence around the school. He said he recently was trimming bushes with another parent when they began chatting about their kids.
“It’s very family-like, very open,” Young said.
The school facility, which is made up of renovated houses, also has contributed to the school’s homey feel that parents and teachers continue to love.
“When we went to Heartwood, what we liked about it was it was a little rough around the edges, and I mean that in a very good way,” Young said. “It was like going into someone’s house.”
Others attribute the familial environment to veteran teachers who have been with the school for most of its existence.
“Sue is Heartwood,” said Jeny Brill, who has been teaching at Heartwood for eight years. “I think it’s all of these aspects that reflect upon her leadership.”
The next 25 years
These days, Daniel is looking to the future in terms of a building and who will run the school.
Nearly 200 people gathered at the Matthews House in March to celebrate the school’s 25th anniversary. The school collected about $19,000 from the event to build a multi-purpose room, which will be used for activities involving the whole school or outdoor sports.
The first phase will cost about $25,000, and Daniel said they have almost reached that goal because of donations and other fundraisers.
“It will probably be just more or less a cement slab with a roof over it for probably the first year before we raise more money, and we’ll try to enclose it at some point,” she said.
A new building may not be the only change students and parents see in the coming years.
Daniel, who turns 65 this year, has no plans to retire soon, but the school’s milestone anniversary has prompted her to think about the future of Heartwood more and more.
“It’s really given me new energy to hopefully try to find the right people to keep the school going along for another 25 years,” she said.
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-460-2608: @KTrogdon
What is a Montessori School?
The Montessori Method of education was developed by Dr. Maria Montessori in 1907. It is a child-centered approach that encourages children to learn through self-motivation within a carefully prepared environment.
Children in Montessori programs learn at their own pace and according to their own choice of activities. The multi-age setting offers an opportunity to relate to, and work with others at their developmental level.
There are about 40 Montessori programs in the Triangle, from private school settings to charter schools and traditional public schools. Go to montessori.org for more on the curriculum and school locations.