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From left, Montessorri students Sam Rhodes, Samantha Arnold, Lulu Boyle, teacher Peggy Kilpatrick, Kadyn Childers, Ella Schlagenhauf, Aimae DeCurtins, Lindsay Smith and Jackson Coffey. Kilpatrick, who started the Decatur school 18 years ago, is retiring. She is proud that most of 'my children' were later accepted into the Decatur City Schools magnet program. 'It makes me feel good that they're ready for that,' she said.
Daily photo by Gary Lloyd
From left, Montessorri students Sam Rhodes, Samantha Arnold, Lulu Boyle, teacher Peggy Kilpatrick, Kadyn Childers, Ella Schlagenhauf, Aimae DeCurtins, Lindsay Smith and Jackson Coffey. Kilpatrick, who started the Decatur school 18 years ago, is retiring. She is proud that most of "my children" were later accepted into the Decatur City Schools magnet program. "It makes me feel good that they're ready for that," she said.

Montessori's last week
Decatur school's founder retiring after 18 years; students and parents say they'll miss the program and 'Miss Peggy'

By Patrice Stewart
pstewart@decaturdaily.com 340-2446

It's hard to resist the lure of lollipop kisses and arms wrapping around you like miniature octopus hugs, but Peggy Gleason Kilpatrick is going to try to do without them for the first time in decades.

The woman who started Decatur's only Montessori School in 1990 is closing the doors this week and looking forward to relaxing and catching up on home projects.

"It's time," said the woman who taught children for 32 years, including 18 years in Decatur, plus time at other Montessori schools in the area.

"I'm nearly 60, and I never thought I could do it this long," she said.

She began her career with two years in Dublin, Ireland, to study Montessori techniques, which emphasize academics for pre-schoolers rather than day care with coloring and playtime.

"The children are hungry for academics," she said.

Her first location was on Somerville Road Southeast in the house now used by The Casual Gourmet, and then she bought the two-story yellow house on Johnston Street Southeast when Shelley's Iron Gate restaurant closed about nine years ago.

"Montessori is really good for children who want to read and write and do other things some don't let 3-year-olds do," Kilpatrick said.

She is proud that most of "my children" were later accepted into the Decatur City Schools magnet program.

"It makes me feel good that they're ready for that," she said.

She took children from age 21/2 to 5 and said the Montessori technique includes mixing ages in the classroom. That means younger children want to copy what the older ones are doing, which gets them started reading and writing earlier.

"And Montessori is the only one with specific equipment, not toys, to teach children," she said, pointing to a wooden clock for learning to tell time, wooden cutout map puzzles of the country and wooden boxes containing letters, words and pictures to be matched. Golden beads are used to teach children the decimal system — something many adults never master — and sandpaper letters teach phonics.

"There's something in every room for a 3-, 4- and 5-year-old child to do," said Kilpatrick. "And I did a lot with geography because I wanted them to get a sense of community as well as learning how big the world is and about other countries."

What will become of her school?

"As far as I know, there just won't be a Montessori school here, unless someone else starts one," she said.

She plans to sell her Montessori equipment to some of the six schools in Huntsville or locations elsewhere, and she is not sure what she'll do with the building.

As she planned to retire, she had been decreasing the number of students she took in. She had about 55 students three years ago, but this year she only took 15. Leah Harper is her assistant.

Kilpatrick's teaching career ended with a sad note. Her mother, Nell Gleason, worked with her and taught the children Spanish on Mondays and Fridays. She died unexpectedly in March, so Kilpatrick got out her mother's Spanish folders and took over.

"That was extremely difficult, and I've really missed her," said Kilpatrick.

Wednesday was the last Montessori class day, with a "graduation" Thursday morning at Delano Park.

Mothers and grandmothers picking up children Tuesday were sad to see the school closing because most have youngsters who could go there another year or so, plus younger siblings they'd like to send there. The school offered an extended day program, too, for those needing to stay through the afternoons.

"It's just not going to be the same without seeing Miss Peggy," said Mae Childers of Decatur, whose regular routine included picking up her grandchildren on Tuesdays and Thursdays. "They learned so much here," she said.

Carson Childers, 5, is headed for kindergarten at Chestnut Grove Elementary School in the fall, but his younger sister, Kadyn, 3, will have to start a new pre-school program somewhere else.

What's next for parents?

Sharon Holder DeCurtins of Decatur dropped by to pick up her current Montessori School student, 4-year-old Aimae. She brought along her toddler, 15-month-old Addie, and her Montessori graduate, Mary Grace, 6, who is finishing her kindergarten year at Chestnut Grove and looking forward to the magnet school at Benjamin Davis in the fall.

She is looking at other options for next year for Aimae and Addy.

"They get a lot more school-type subjects here," DeCurtains said.

"My older two were always in day care five days a week in Montgomery until we moved here, but Mary Grace was just plain bored and didn't seem to be learning anything. Now Aimae does things sooner than her older sister did," she said.

"And they'd always cry and not want to go to day care, but I never had much of a problem getting them to Montessori school."

She said her children asked more questions and wanted more details than before, and they came home singing songs they learned from the music teacher at school and talking about various instruments.

"And I liked the Spanish lessons they got here," DeCurtains said. "They really learned a lot," including musical instruments and art, along with music and academics.

Donna Arnold, whose 31/2-year-old daughter, Samantha, attended from the moment she was old enough, wishes the school wasn't closing.

"The kids love Miss Peggy so much, and she's so laid back," she said.

Perhaps Samantha will be ahead of her new classmates at St. Ann's pre-school, "because she learned so much there and was already counting beyond 10 in Spanish."

The children have helped Kilpatrick get through a bittersweet year, but she knows it's time for a new phase of life.

"I'll miss everybody, including all my little ones who would come back from other schools to see me," she said.

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