After a Destructive Flood, a Philly-Favorite School Constructed Their Ideal Learning Environment
Located in the Logan Square neighborhood, Greene Towne Montessori School, whose name references William Penn’s description of Philadelphia as a “greene country towne,” is itself a part of Philadelphia’s history.
Founded in 1966 by a group of parents who wanted to bring Montessori education to Center City (the closest Montessori school was in East Falls), Greene Towne Montessori School has long been valued as a leader in early childhood development and education in Philly. Its founding families’ mission was to grow a racially, religiously, and economically diverse school, all within the context of the Montessori approach to early childhood education.
“[Italian physician] Dr. Maria Montessori designed a program around children’s natural development based on her research and careful observation that focused on all the ways that their brains work,” explains Head of School Sarah Sweeney-Denham. “From birth to age six is the most important time for human development. Research shows that they’re absorbing everything around them; our Montessori approach is to work really hard to design an environment which feels like home–warm, comfortable and interesting. We know that this is the learning environment in which children at these ages thrive.”
Greene Towne students are about to enjoy a new, warm, and very interesting home this February. Following “a series of unfortunate events,” to quote children’s author Lemony Snickets, Greene Towne Montessori School is moving into a new 30,000-square-foot space that they have custom-designed to embody the educational philosophy set forth by Montessori. The stunning, light-filled classrooms will provide optimal opportunities for children ages 18-months to six-years-old and beyond to fulfill Montessori’s assertion that children thrive when agency and independence in their intellectual and physical development is internalized.
The building’s design, and how it came to fruition in the face of adversity, show how critical an individual school’s culture, pedagogical approach and spirit can be when it comes to providing a great education to children at the outset of their lives.
The road to their new home was, in true Philly fashion, riddled with potholes.
It was the night before the first day of school in September 2021. Teachers stayed late that night, putting the finishing touches on their carefully constructed classroom environments at the “West” campus of Greene Towne Montessori School at 2215 Arch Street, glad for some semblance of normalcy after a turbulent year navigating a global pandemic. Then came Hurricane Ida, pummeling the city with rain and wind. By 3:00 a.m., the Schuylkill River, located across 23rd Street from the school, flooded the campus and well beyond. The flood damage was total, destroying everything in the school’s four West campus classrooms and several administrative offices.
“By the time the waters started to recede, the flooding had reached over four feet. It’s hard to articulate the emotional impact it had. We lost absolutely everything,” Sweeney-Denham says. “Except for things that were stored above five feet, which in a preschool is not very much.”
Carefully curated environments, Montessori materials and furniture, and teachers’ Montessori reference albums were lost forever, which was personally very difficult for the educators, Sweeney-Denham notes.
For the next year, the school borrowed space in the recently vacated Hallahan High School. Adapting a high school to meet the needs (and heights) of toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergartners was a challenge. Director of Facilities David Hudson built temporary handrails on the stairs, small portable sinks were brought in, even the toilets needed steps to accommodate the youngest students. A paper butterfly hung from the ceiling at the bottom of the stairs to serve as a focal point for the little ones as they carefully descended the stairs to the multipurpose room (“just keep looking at the butterfly!”).
But an amazing thing happened in that year: Current parents, parents of alumni, Logan Square neighbors, as well as many in the educational community, found ways to support Greene Towne, donating teaching materials and furniture. Before they could become too comfortable though, their temporary space was sold and they were told they would need to leave by the end of the school year.
A New Home
Fortunately, Greene Towne trustees had begun a search for a new home years ago, and had completed extensive analysis of the space and site requirements that would be needed for the school’s present and future. After the flood, the school’s Real Estate Task Force reconvened and picked up the search where they had left off once the pandemic hit.
When Greene Towne Board president Dan Rainer, a Greene Towne alum and current parent, toured 55 N. 22nd Street, what had been the Science Leadership Academy, and was now gutted and seeking a tenant, he called Sweeney-Denham, telling her, “You need to come over here and see this.”
Guided by architect and Board member Stacey Storm, Rainer, Sweeney-Denham, and Hudson, with herculean support from the Board and the entire Greene Towne community, brought to life a vision of a state-of-the-art space fitted out specifically for the Greene Towne Montessori School program and students. From a bi-level reception desk (one child-level counter, one taller) to the toddler-sized porcelain toilets and sinks (complete with four-foot-high privacy stalls), to the child-sized kitchen for cooking projects, to the 4000-square-foot roof deck play area, along with some extra space, Greene Towne has found a new home, finally.
“The classroom is the child’s world. And we are very intentional about protecting their learning process and not interrupting their concentration,” Sweeney-Denham says.
With the extra space, Greene Towne is positioned to give back to the broader community of Philly families, educators, and organizations. Plans include “Montessori and Me” parent-child classes and Greene Towne lead teachers, all of whom are Montessori-certified, will lead training sessions for local educators, parents, caregivers, and neighbors.
“The new facility will allow us to serve more children and young families, as well as the opportunity to expand our program to new levels—goals we’ve had for a long time, but have never had the space to do,” Sweeney-Denham says.
“Dr. Montessori believed the way to a peaceful world is to start at the beginning of human development. And if you give children the confidence and skills to value their own contribution to something larger than themselves and collaborate and learn from each other, we’ll have a more peaceful society,” Sweeney-Denham says. “Our approach and philosophy is built around fostering a sense of agency and confidence in children, and we extend that same respect to everyone in our community.”
Greene Towne is now accepting applications for children ages 18-months through 4-years-old. Visit www.gtms.org to learn more about Greene Towne’s programs, workshops for children and families, admissions, and financial aid. Recordings from Greene Towne’s Parent Ed series, including The Power of Positive Parenting, Parenting and Social Justice, Your Toddler Can Do It!, can also be found on the website.This is a paid partnership between Greene Towne Montessori School and Philadelphia Magazine's City/Studio