From the ages of 2 to 10, Imogen attended the Montessori classroom at Great Sarratt Hall in Hertfordshire, England , which was set-up by her godmothers Gladys Raymond and Margaret Homfray.
In 1946 Dr. Montessori worked with Phoebe Child and Margaret Homfray (pioneers of the Montessori Method of children’s education and co-founders of the Montessori World Educational Institute) to start an English Montessori teacher training program, which later became St. Nicholas Training Centre for the Montessori Method of Education. This is where Ms. Stooke Wheeler completed her Montessori training, and her certificate was signed by Dr. Maria Montessori herself.
Ms. Gates, a public school first-grade teacher looking for inspiration, visited a Montessori school in Atlanta at Ms. Stooke Wheeler’s suggestion and was thrilled with what she found. She decided to take her Montessori teacher training, and since it was not readily available in town, took the correspondence course from the St. Nicholas Training Centre alongside her internship at the new school.
The Early Years
Ms. Stooke Wheeler and Ms. Gates opened the Montessori school in a house on Madison Street in downtown Huntsville with just a handful of students, but by the fall they had a full class. Ms. Stooke Wheeler was the lead teacher and Ms. Gates completed her year-long internship as the assistant teacher.
As the Montessori school had a close connection with St. Nicholas Training Centre, all of the original Montessori materials were ordered by Ms. Stooke Wheeler from them.
To help run the business portion of the school, Ms. Stooke Wheeler and Ms. Gates formed the Montessori Society of Huntsville, a nonprofit Alabama corporation, . A group of parents took over the board and named the school the Azalea House. In 1967, the school was reorganized and renamed the Montessori School of Huntsville (MSH). To accommodate its growing enrollment, the school moved to 519 Madison Street . Two years later, it expanded again to include four pre-primary classes.
The school relocated to 1220 Blevins Gap Road in 1974 and continued having classes in the converted house until 2012. Early morning and after school care was added for the convenience of the parent body in 1986, and summer enrichment programs were initiated.
A Time of Growth
The school earned the status of “affiliate” with the American Montessori Society in 1988 after two years of self-study and consultation. Full-time, year-round childcare was first offered in 1990.
Purchasing a second site at 1206 Blevins Gap Road in 1992 allowed the addition of another preprimary class and a lower elementary class by September of 1993. That same year, AmSouth Bank awarded MSH a grant to develop a joint geography program with a local public school.
The years 1993 to 1999 marked growth in student enrollment, budget, programs, and facilities. By 1999 student enrollment had increased to 115 students, with one toddler class for 18-month to 3-year-old children (added in 1996), four pre-primary classes, and the elementary program. Long-range plans were made and a formal search was begun to find a site on which to consolidate the school programs and facilities.
In 1998 MSH purchased nearly 11 acres of land on Chaney Thompson Road in southeast Huntsville for a new campus. Ground was broken for the new facility in May of 2001, and the toddler class, two preprimary classes, and the elementary program moved into the “green” building, with natural daylight as its primary light source, in September of 2002. Since 2010, MSH has developed the acreage at the Chaney Thompson location into a multi-faceted outdoor classroom. Projects for the outdoor classroom have been funded largely through local grants and parent support. MSH has been recognized by the National Wildlife Federation and the Alabama Wildlife Federation and currently is certified as both a wildlife habitat and an Alabama Outdoor Classroom. The walking trails, outdoor seating area, learning stations, gardens, bee hives, and chicken coop that comprise our Outdoor Classroom are utilized daily and maintained by students with support from our parent volunteers.
Continuing the Vision
Ms. Stooke Wheeler visited MSH in 2004. She had not visited the school in 35 years but was delighted we had preserved her vision, which she had gotten from Dr. Montessori herself. Ms. Stooke Wheeler and Ms. Gates spoke at our Montessori reunion in August, and Ms. Stooke Wheeler spoke at the September Board of Directors meeting, where she and Ms. Stooke Wheeler were made honorary members. They both returned to the school for another visit in 2012. After her visit, Ms. Stooke Wheeler said of the school, “I was moved by the dedicated and inspired spirit of the teachers and all the staff, by the purposeful calm in the classrooms, and of course the lovely children. It is wonderful to know the school is still thriving and expanding and offering new generations of children the same unique opportunities that only Dr. Montessori’s vision can offer. More and more as I grow older, I recognize and appreciate the self-confidence instilled through working with beautiful objects and materials in a calm environment allowing one freedom of choice and am grateful to my parents for this early experience which enriched my life in ways other primary education cannot match.”
The school has hosted after-school enrichment programs, including private piano lessons, chess club, soccer lessons, robotics club, and art.
In 2011, the Montessori School of Huntsville proudly achieved full accreditation from the Southern Association of Independent Schools / Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, a voluntary organization of independent elementary and secondary schools throughout the Southeastern United States and the Caribbean. An SAIS-SACS accredited school is part of an international network of accredited schools which have demonstrated success in educating children. As such, SAIS-SACS accreditation is recognized throughout the world as a symbol of quality in education for students and teachers.