From its grand opening in August 1999 to the kindergarten graduation ceremony this June, Ridgefield Montessori School has leaned on three core principles to help it grow — hands-on learning, independent thinking, and giving back to the community.

The school turns 20 years old this month, and has six times as many students as when it first opened in Jesse Lee Church’s Martin Hall.

“At the time we were looking locally for schools for our son who was three at the time,” said Director Catherine Tango-Dykes. “We were reading about self-directed education in the 1990s and how self-confidence and independence would help inspire a true love of learning. That’s how it got started ...

“We recruited and hired some Montessori-trained teachers, and it kind of grew from there,” Tango-Dykes recalled. “We only had two teachers that first year, teaching 12 students. That’s grown to 18, including part-time special teachers, this year.”

Growth is an easy theme to pick out from Ridgefield Montessori School’s two decade history.

In its first few years, the school only took students ages three and four. In the mid 2000s, Tango-Dykes added a toddler program to teach self-directed activity, hands-on learning and collaborative play to students ages three through six.

A few years after that with enrollment surging, the school proved too big for the space in Jesse Lee and moved to its current location 96 Danbury Road.

“We built this space out from scratch basically — it used to be a warehouse for allergy control medicine,” Tango-Dykes recalled. “They happened to be moving out and we had total control on creating a new space.”

Some of her favorite memories were designing the classrooms and laying out the flooring and rugs.

“Our goal was to make it really homey and it have plenty of storage space,” Tango-Dykes said. “... When we get them into the classroom, we want to give them time and space to explore. Find out what interests them and have them follow it. It’s beautiful to see them wanting to learn more.”

Oh the places you’ll go...

The school is mostly made up of Ridgefield children but Tango-Dykes said she’s had students from Danbury, Bethel, Redding, Wilton, North Salem, and South Salem in her classrooms.

“We’ve grown exponentially every year,” Tango-Dykes said. “It’s been fun to have students come to us and watch them become independent learners. ... Some of the degrees they’ve earned are really impressive.”

Ridgefield Montessori graduates have gone on to attend Princeton, Auburn, Syracuse, Delaware, Providence, Colorado, and Penn State.

Some of the fields include nursing, engineering, sports media, and law.

In Ridgefield, they’ve made an impact, too.

Allie Cauchon, who was named Connecticut Youth of the Year by Boys & Girls Clubs of America in May, is an alumna of Ridgefield Montessori. Weston Carpenter, one of the top 10 students from the Ridgefield High School class of 2019, also graduated from Ridgefield Montessori.

“Those are just two that have been in the news recently ... so many kids who’ve gone on to help this community had their foundation here,” Tango-Dykes said, “they might not remember it but we remember them being here and we’ve watched fondly as they’ve grown up.”

Giving back

If there was a second theme from Ridgefield Montessori’s first 20 years, it would be community service.

From day one, Tango-Dykes and her staff have students thinking about how they can help others — specifically in Ridgefield.

Some of the school’s traditions include singing holiday songs at Founders Hall around Christmas time and decorating bags for Meals on Wheels.

“We always want to be doing something that the kids understand,” Tango-Dykes explained. “With Meals on Wheels, they know it’s someone’s lunch and understand how important it is for everyone to eat. ... They really enjoy doing something for others.”

Traditions

In November, students also participate in the annual Thanksgiving tradition of cooking vegetable soup for their parents and eating it with them.

“It’s really cute, the kids cut up veggies and stir, it’s very special to see all our families come in and have soup with us,” Tango-Dykes said.

Earlier in the year, the school celebrates International Peace Day. Teachers light a candle for peace and lead a moment of silence.

“Montessori schools around the world do it, which makes it really nice for our kids and staff to join in,” she said.

The fun isn’t isolated in the fall.

The school gives French lessons in all classes each week, as well as two music programs music and movement and African drumming —that are presented once a month in all classes.

“We hold a school wide art show each year showcasing art created by all students and shown all classes,” said Tango-Dykes. “...We work in conjunction with the Aldrich Museum and, once a month, our older students visit the museum and are able to create something in the art education room.”

In June, the graduating students put on a spring musical and play.

“It’s always a simple story and they act it out,” Tango-Dykes said. “This year we had Queen Midas a spin off the tale of King Midas. It’s a lot of fun to be with them one more time before they finish with us.”

Looking ahead

Tango-Dykes said the school will be celebrating its 20-year anniversary throughout the school year.

“We have a new banner that we walked with in the Memorial Day Parade,” she said, “and we had special shirts made. There’s no party planned but we’ll be having fun. It’s easier to have events sprinkled throughout the year than have one big one.”

As far as looking beyond this year, Ridgefield Montessori’s curriculum will remain mostly the same as it has since 1999 — an emphasis on real play time outdoors and creative thinking.

“It’s hard to be a kid now,” said Tango-Dykes. “We’ve seen a big change in screen time. Kids are not playing enough outside. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to give up. We want to give them the gift of time. Outdoors real play time — every day where we read stories and sing songs, all the basics.”

While things have changed in education, the mission and philosophy of her school remains the same.

“You have to be flexible,” Tango-Dykes said, “every day is different but the focus is always on the children. It’s about their happiness and safety and giving them a warm and nurturing environment.”