Norwich – The man in the old TV commercial who bragged about being so impressed with a product that he bought the company has nothing about Patrice Champagne.
In 1985 Patrice and her husband William were so discouraged that the Maria Montessori School in Greeneville, where they had enrolled their son a year earlier, planned to close and bought the school.
Patrice Champagne becomes headmaster.
“I thought, ‘How hard can it be to run a school?'” She said on Thursday. “Yes. I quickly realized that I had no idea and that running a school wasn’t a business. It was much bigger.”
The couple consulted Montessori experts, Patrice took administrative training, and they plowed ahead.
Over the next 35 years, the Montessori Discovery School also grew much larger. The Champagnes looked after the two primary classes of the school for children aged 3 to 6 years in rented rooms of the former St. Mary’s School in Greeneville and later in the Brothers of Joseph Synagogue until they found a new home.
William Champagne, a real estate agent specializing in historic homes, soon found an old farm on Dudley Street four acres and one acre across the street. Dedicated families helped finance the purchase and renovation.
The couple turned property over to a not for profit run by a board of trustees, and the newly named Montessori Discovery School had permanent residence at 218 Dudley St. in Norwich.
The farm wasn’t entirely gone, with two llamas, 10 chickens, three office cats, and classroom pets in all five animal classes: amphibians, reptiles, birds, fish, and mammals.
A new building in 2005 enabled the school to be expanded up to the sixth grade.
Now, at the age of 71, Patrice Champagne is ready to hand over the baton for her “very special jewel” to the next generation. She retired as headmistress on Friday and switched to the new part-time position of school clerk.
“Patrice is a remarkable person and she gave us this wonderful gift from MDS,” said Board of Trustees Chairman Benjamin Breault. “We will spend the next year celebrating her and we will always remember how Patrice enriched our lives.”
Kathryn Procko, 35, head of the toddler program since 2017, parents of two students at the school and coordinator of the school’s COVID-19 response, has been appointed by the board as the new headmistress.
“Doing whatever it takes to be responsible for admissions and people development, facilities and finances will be overwhelming,” said Champagne. “Technology alone is huge. And the changes need a younger eye, need someone who is more of a parent than a grandparent. “
One of Champagne’s grandchildren graduated from Montessori Discovery School in 2020, and a second will be entering the school’s third grade this year.
Procko, 35, of Stonington found out about the Montessori Discovery School from a neighbor. She attended and fell in love with the school and its philosophy. Procko enrolled their son Henry in 2012. He is in the sixth grade this year. His younger brother Elliott is in second grade.
In 2017, Procko, then a special educator for early grades at Norwich Public Schools, learned that the Montessori Discovery School was planning to open a toddler program for children aged 18 months to 3 years. She “took the chance” and worked with Champagne to build the program.
A year later, she turned to Champagne and said she wanted to be a school administrator. Procko was trained in Montessori administration and applied to succeed Champagne.
Procko said she was drawn to the Montessori philosophy from the start. The program emphasizes small group teaching, team teaching and hands-on learning. The program helps the students to become “joyful learners who confidently engage in our world,” she quoted from the mission statement.
“That’s why a lot of parents come here,” says Procko. “My husband and I wanted our children to empathize with their peers and friends, to stand up for themselves and for others. That is the basis they get. “
The school now has around 50 to 60 students. The toddler program consists of a class with a teacher and an assistant. The primary school program for children aged 3 to 6 has a teacher and an assistant. And the elementary program for third to sixth grade students has two teachers and an assistant.
There is a school principal, an administrative assistant and now a part-time clerk.
The school rents out for property maintenance and upkeep and, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, held volunteer parenting days to weed and clean up the grounds. Procko hopes to reintroduce this this year.
Tuition this year is $ 12,300 for full-time toddlers; $ 11,200 for full-time elementary school children; $ 11,200 for all-day kindergartens and $ 11,450 for elementary school children. There are half-day offers for toddlers and preschoolers.
The school provides on-demand financial aid and granted $ 95,000 in student discounts last year, Champagne said.
As manager, Champagne hopes to be able to analyze enrollments and where the students come from – usually within half an hour’s drive – in order to expand the school.
She also hopes to work with the University of Connecticut’s expansion system to create a management plan for the wetlands, fields and bushland. Students venture into the school land in small groups to explore science.
The Montessori Discovery School maintained face-to-face learning over the past year, initially with seven students enrolled in distance learning. Everyone was returning to full face-to-face learning by May, Procko said.
The school has not had any on-site coronavirus cases, she said, recognizing the dedication of staff and parents to ensuring compliance with safety measures to keep the school open.
“That only speaks for how our community values our school,” said Procko.