By CYNTHIA PICKERRELL, Four Points News
As daunting as it may seem to reopen schools during the coronavirus pandemic, a Four Points Montessori school took that brave step to show it can be successfully achieved. School in the Hills — the two-campus school located in River Place and Steiner Ranch — was opened 12 years ago last week by Steiner couple Daniel and Alicia Marker and to date they have had nearly 1,000 students. During this challenging time, the school is up and successfully managing safety protocols for their students.
“The kids adapted so well to their new normal,” said Lisa Chalk, head of school for the River Place campus. “They’re used to seeing us wearing masks and recognize us. They’re excited to be back at school.”
As with all schools in the area, School in the Hills, which teaches children ages 18 months to 12 years, had to close in March to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Then on May 18, Gov. Greg Abbot allowed child care centers to reopen in accordance with Texas Department of State Health Services guidelines. Though teaching remotely through the spring, SitH opened for it’s summer camp program starting June 8.
The response from the parents has been positive.
“The vast majority of families are really looking for an in-person setting,” said Chalk. “They’ve come to understand that social interaction is necessarily limited when learning from home.”
For those unfamiliar with the Montessori method, it’s a hands-on, community-based education. The typical class groups children not by age, but age range – from 3- to 6-years-old, for example — the philosophy being “the younger are inspired by what they see the older students doing and the older develop skills through mentoring,” said Chalk. The daily lessons are set in a highly-tactile environment, where subjects like math are taught using beads.
So how does a Montessori school minimize the risk of transmission? It’s no small feat. School in the Hills made every effort to prepare parents for the new safety procedures.
“The fact that they were thinking ahead, researching and making plans in advance, was reassuring,” said Cindy Vanhouette, a mother of two School in the Hills students ages 2 and 5.
“I have an autoimmune disorder, and the decision to send the kids back (to school) was not made lightly,” Vanhouette said. “To put it into context, I still do not physically enter grocery stores, shops or restaurants. But I send my kids to School in the Hills every morning with big smiles on all of our faces.”
A typical day is a strict regiment from drop off to pick up. Hours overall have been reduced from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. down to 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to allow for deep cleaning between school days.
At drop-off, parent arrival times are staggered to avoid crowding. And the tradition of walking children to class has ended for the time being. For pick-up, parents text a number from their car and children are escorted out.
“When we arrive in the morning, we’re not allowed to get out of our car,” said Vanhoutte. Instead, school attendants, wearing masks at all times, come to the car, ask a series of health questions, take student temperatures, and help the child from the car. Hands are washed before they enter the building.
In addition, no personal items are allowed, including backpacks and water bottles. The only exception is a blanket for toddler naps, which must be inside a sealed plastic bag. Masks are required for all staff and most students throughout the day except for toddlers. Primary students (ages 3 to kindergarten) are optional.
Once inside, social distancing is achieved first through grouping the same children with the same teacher each day. Within classrooms, children now have designated tables for working and eating — even designated space for floor activities. High use materials (like scissors and markers) are assigned and labeled to each child.
Classes don’t mingle, nor is there sharing of Montessori teaching materials between groups. The playground is open but each class has their own assigned bucket for outside toys. And, of course, hand washing and sanitizing materials between use is ongoing throughout the day.
“What I really appreciated was that they proactively told us parents that while they will be encouraging social distancing … they will continue taking the developmental needs of each child into account, including their social and emotional well-being,” said Vanhouette. This includes comforting sad or hurt children and moving them around the classroom or playground as needed, not forcing them to stay in one place.
“We’re trying to avoid any mid-day surprise,” said Chalk of their new routine, which strictly follows guidelines recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Texas state.”
However, procedures are in place should anyone develop virus symptoms during the day. Staff members are required to leave immediately, and a sick child is isolated and parents called. The school is required to then call Austin Public Health, who will walk them through the next steps. Thankfully, everyone has stayed healthy thus far.
“I appreciate our school’s stringent approach and enforcement and have found it very reassuring throughout this whole process, said Vanhouette. “Frankly, without it, I wouldn’t have even considered sending them (my children) back.”
“Two months in and they’re still enforcing all procedures and protocols to the fullest extent,” she added. “I trust that School in the Hills will not let up when it comes to safety, and that helps me sleep at night.”
School in the Hills marks a dozen years
By LYNETTE HAALAND, Four Points News
School in the Hills not only celebrated 12 years last week but its owners are also grateful of another milestone — nearly 1,000 students have passed through their doors.
Daniel and Alicia Marker of Steiner Ranch founded School in the Hills Montessori and opened their Steiner school on August 4, 2008. A few years later they expanded to River Place on a three-acre site where they built their second location which opened in early 2016.
Alicia has worked in Montessori education for more than three decades. Prior to moving to Steiner, she both taught and served as the head of school at a large campus in Houston.
The couple built their dream school and Daniel serves as the administrative director.
Bonus, both grown sons live in Austin and one son and his wife just moved to Steiner in April and have a 2-week-old baby and 2-year-old.
The past dozen years have brought many milestones while working so closely with hundreds of local families. Daniel shares some of his perspective being in the driver’s seat running two beloved schools in the Four Points community.
Daniel Marker, in his own words
It is not a “milestone” but I am most proud of the school community that started 12 years ago and helps sustain us today.
From the beginning, we had parents who trusted us with their children and truly believed that we would have a positive impact on their lives.
We have had some amazing staff members who have loved the kids as much as Alicia and I do and worked hard for every single student.
Most importantly, we have had nearly 1,000 amazing students through these years. These amazing and unique children are what we are all about. In fact, our first year students are now in high school and some are seniors this year.
The biggest challenge is COVID, of course. We closed the schools before spring break and Lisa, our head of school, created a distance learning curriculum in a short 10 days. She and the team created Zoom classrooms, curriculum and individualized teacher meetings on the fly. It wasn’t perfect but our staff worked hard for our students and our parents trusted us and stuck with School in the Hills.
We certainly did not think that we would be closed for 12 weeks. Thankfully, our school community rallied around this effort and we were able to get through that rough spot.
We are starting our 13th school year with a fraction of our previous enrollment. We know that those numbers will grow as we collectively learn to deal with COVID.
I know that our school community will help us survive this crazy period but in the meantime, we are working hard to start this new school year in the right way for our families — both in person and distance learning.