Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Tuesday, August 5, 2014
New Montessori Children's School director takes reins

The chickens are coming home to roost at the Montessori Children's School of Key West.

More specifically, one of the school's earliest hatchlings has returned to the educational nest her parents helped found in 1972 to aid the instruction of a new generation of students -- including members of her own brood.

Her name is Amy O'Connor, and while chicken metaphors may be a dime a dozen in rooster- and writer-filled Key West, in O'Connor's case one seems oddly apropos.

"I actually grew up around chickens," O'Connor said with a laugh. "My family raised them. They are some of my earliest memories."

The longtime educator was among the earliest students at the school, entering its primary education program during the 1973-74 academic year. O'Connor's older sister, Alissa, began the previous, inaugural, session.

The family connection also includes O'Connor's younger brother, Andrew, who enrolled there in 1975 and whose own daughter, Alice, now attends MCS.

Now O'Connor has agreed to become the head of the school.

Fresh from a R.V. tour across the country with her two youngest children, O'Connor has been pecking away at grant-writing, searching for subsidies and students, and trying to promote her message: She wants to see the nonprofit 501(c)(3) school diversify its student body by offering as many scholarships and other financial incentives to as many local families as possible.

O'Connor takes the reins at a time of both challenge and opportunity at the school, which itself is home to a number of the brightly colored roosters.

Over the past year alone the school lost three leaders, for various reasons.

The title Head of School is gone, but Executive Director O'Connor retains those acknowledged responsibilities, as well as a new set of fiduciary imperatives. These requirements made her degree in finance from the University of Florida an attractive selling point to the hiring committee. But O'Connor also holds a Montessori teaching degree from United Montessori Association in Washington state. She intends to continue the teaching in the traditional Montessori method, which blends children of three different ages to allow younger children to have older role models, and eventually assume leadership roles themselves.

During O'Connor's first year as a student at the "parent-based corporation, administered by an elected board of directors," tuition was $45 a month for what was then a half-day program. Today, that fee stands at $740 a month for the full-day program at the school, which has expanded its grounds to include five classrooms.

At the same time, tuition-free, publicly funded charter schools are spreading across the county and country, and homeowners are already paying property tax to support, for example, the Montessori Charter School, located just three blocks away, which this year will offer kindergarten for the first time.

Key West's original "alternative" school is having to adjust to a new reality, but O'Connor says she's up to the challenge.

"Rightly or wrongly, we have been perceived as a school of the children of well-to-do, influential Key Westers," O'Connor said. "And that's not going to change overnight. Certainly, we've had a pretty good record with our alumni; however, I'd like to think that their success has been more due to the exceptional education they received, rather than simply the fact that some Montessori families have been wealthier than others."

O'Connor's own parents weren't particularly well off, and she can rightly point to a number of distinguished alumni, such as Miami Herald Reporter and TV political analyst Marc Caputo, Monroe County School Board member Robin Smith-Martin, and other middle-class success stories.

And for the time being, at least, O'Connor's school remains the only school in Key West offering the three-year cycle Montessori program from 18 months to kindergarten. And the new executive director has already raised $22,000 in scholarship money.

She plans on redoubling her efforts to ease the financial burden of her students, and give the school a fighting chance of surviving and prospering.

This year's kindergarten class at the Montessori Charter School will consist of children of the same age, due to space limitations. However its directors are hoping to change that in the coming years, should more space become available at the May Sands complex, which is administered by the School District.

O'Connor believes there is room for both schools to operate and is pleased to have been offered the opportunity to pass on what she's learned.

"It is my dream to be able to offer a Montessori education to every family interested," she said. "My door is wide open."

tschmida@keysnews.com

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