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History

One of the questions often asked at Ridgeline is, “How did this school get started?” So, here it is: Ridgeline Montessori’s startup story.

It all started in the spring of 1998, with conversations between parents at one of Eugene’s private Montessori preschool/kindergartens, College Hill Montessori. Many parents were looking for a first-grade program that would build upon the independent learning experience their children had enjoyed at College Hill. It wasn’t easy to find.

Parent Kathleen Freeman Hennessy distributed a flyer, seeking like-minded individuals who might be interested in starting Eugene’s first public Montessori program for the elementary years. She received about a dozen excited responses, and a group began meeting at various kitchen tables to discuss how to proceed. The core group of interested parents consisted of Hennessy, who worked as a computer science instructor at the University of Oregon; a District 4J special educator named Kristin King; and a writer/editor and Eugene Planning Commissioner named Ellen Wojahn. The first major step the three took was to bring the idea of a Montessori elementary school to District 4J officials, hoping that they would agree to establish the school as another alternative school within the district. The district declined.

The effort to establish a Montessori school slowed as the result of this setback, but it didn’t stop. Hennessy and King made the rounds of various education meetings to talk up their ideas and, in their travels, they met Mary Bauer, a veteran 4J teacher and avowed fan of Montessori education. Captivated by the concept of a Eugene public Montessori school, Bauer enthusiastically joined the little working group.

In January of 1999, the Oregon Legislature narrowly approved the state’s first charter education law, opening the doors to what would prove to be hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal money for each qualifying startup charter. Hennessy, King, Wojahn, and Bauer were hesitant to pursue charter status, noting that the charter movement often positioned itself as “the answer to failing public schools.” The four didn’t see Eugene’s public schools as failing; they merely wanted to offer a new Montessori choice in the district. However, the monies that came with charter status were hard to ignore. The working group soon realized that only through federal “charter-starter” grants would they be able to pay the $25,000-per-classroom cost of acquiring Montessori materials. It was a no-brainer. They needed to become charter developers.

Meeting weekly in a spouse’s office or on a park bench, the group dug into what proved to be a very large task. Hennessy focused on getting up to speed on charter law. King researched other Montessori charters around the nation and the foundation grants available to startups. Bauer began developing the educational concept for the school, and Wojahn functioned as marketer, publicist, and editor of the emerging stacks of paper.

One rainy Sunday afternoon in late 1999 felt especially pivotal: The group decided to name its proposed school Ridgeline Montessori Public Charter School. Why Ridgeline? Because the ridgeline is a significant land feature in Eugene, and it is visible from most parts of the city. One spouse wondered about the deeper educational meaning of the name choice. “Why not go with Summit?” he asked. “Why would anyone ‘stop’ at the Ridgeline?” Another spouse provided a not-so-tongue-in-cheek answer: “Because you take the ridgeline to the top!”  The charter development group also chose a logo for its charter proposal: a black-on-white woodcut of a rounded mountain and some shapes that appeared to be trees—or were they raindrops?

In February of 2000, the state of Oregon approved Ridgeline Montessori’s charter proposal and awarded a $10,0000 planning grant. Along with that approval came automatic assurance of another $100,000 dollars for a first year and $50,000 for each of the next two years.(Note: Because of increased allocations, the actual amount of grant money received in the first three years of Ridgeline’s operation totaled just under $250,000.)

The day the charter proposal was approved was one of great jubilation. But it was tempered by the harrowing realization that the group still needed to win and ink a charter contract with District 4J, and do it by July, if there was any hope of opening a school in September 2000.

Once again Hennessy took on the legal research and became the liaison with the school district. King wrote and won a $10,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation, then turned her attention to crafting a three-year budget for Ridgeline. Bauer led the way on curriculum development and provided an insider’s understanding of which District 4J policies were worth adopting for Ridgeline, and which required “reinventing the wheel.” Wojahn continued in her marketing/PR/editing role, and emceed public informational meetings aimed at attracting students. And a new member of the charter development group, District 4J educator Paul Schultz, started the process of securing a school site.

The charter contract was inked in July 2000. And somehow, within six weeks remaining until the start of school, each necessary milestone was reached:
  • Legal nonprofit status was achieved;
  • A Board of Directors was established with Wojahn as president, in recognition of her experience with public process as a city planning commissioner;
  • An enrollment lottery was held;
  • Two teachers, an office manager, and an instructional assistant were put under contract, with the legal assistance of Grace Blea-Nunez, a founding board member;
  • A classroom’s worth of materials and furnishings were ordered and received;
  • And the group moved into its site at the former Frances Willard School at 2855 Lincoln Street. 
There were many hurdles along the way, but none more heart-stopping than District 4J’s sudden reluctance to rent Ridgeline the Willard School space. The district was apologetic, but said it could not operate the school profitably at the rates its leasing agent had proposed. It took an offer to pay a commercial rate of 83 cents per square foot in rent, or about 25% more than budgeted, but Ridgeline won its lease at the eleventh hour.

On September 4, 2000, co-teachers Mary Bauer and Cheri Spies proudly opened the doors of Ridgeline Montessori to 32 students in grades 1–3. The smiling faces of those first 32 students long welcomed all near the front door of the Willard site, in the form of a hand-painted tile plaque. (Unfortunately, we weren't able to recover it after a fire in 2009.) These pioneering students and the hundreds who have followed them owe a debt of gratitude to the determined and tireless members of the charter development team, who won Ridgeline its charter and guided it through its first days, months, and years.