By Heather Gray, Head of School
One of the Walnut Farm Board Members posed that it would serve the school well if we developed a “Walnut Farm Montessori School Elevator Pitch.” When we think about an “elevator pitch” we may envision a scrappy screenwriter scurrying in after an unsuspecting film producer just as the doors are closing to pitch a movie plot within the span of however long it takes to get to ride up an elevator. However, an “elevator pitch” is also a pithy, convincing and inspirational explanation for something about which one feels passion. Northwest Arkansas is probably more vast than a film studio in the 1950’s, but having an elevator pitch ready to explain the wonders of Montessori Education in this place at this time is a very good idea. We decided to use some of our meeting time together at the start of the year to work toward this end.
In order to create the pitch, the board was guided through an exercise to consider the following:
- Reflect on three highlights about what Walnut Farm has personally meant to you and your family. Why do you love Walnut Farm Montessori School?
- In your opinion, what are three strengths of the school?
- What are the ways that Walnut Farm Montessori School impacts the Northwest Arkansas Community? Looking toward the future – where is the school headed; how does and how could Walnut Farm make the most positive difference in the world?
The exercise was a powerful one, and I led the teachers through a similar exercise at a subsequent staff meeting. With both the board and the staff, the Walnut Farm Mission Statement was placed in large font in the center of the circle. It reads: The nationally accredited Walnut Farm Montessori School provides a Montessori education honoring community and individuality by promoting peace and empowering children for life-long learning.
Much of the conversation in both groups circled back to our mission. Here are some of the responses of board members to the first question, “Why do you love Walnut Farm Montessori School?”
- “This school allows my child to develop holistically, as a whole person. I see our experience here going into three buckets: Community, child and parenting. Community is like the support system here-it is like a village. I’ve found some of my closest friends here. For the child, there is a holistic approach to building skills and treating others with kindness and respect. For a child to learn this is immense. And as far as parenting is concerned, I have learned, we have learned how to be a part of family life, how to be good parents.”
- “We have a growing trust that our daughter’s emotional, social, educational and intellectual needs are a shared responsibility. She’s becoming more aware of her community and her role. As an only child, that matters to us. I also like the fact that we use the word “”PEACEMAKERS.” Education for Peace is a highlight for us.
- My reasons go along with the mission statement. As a parent my children are in a loving and nurturing environment. I love it that my children are celebrated and accepted for their differences. Everyone celebrates differences- diversity is valued. As a parent I feel a part of a community that supports each other, parents and the staff. Everyone is working together to make this next generation better.
Here are some teacher responses to the first question:
- I love how much we value individuality. I’m not a standardized test taker and I didn’t love school, but I think I would have thrived here. It’s about the whole child and there’s no shame to what we are lacking. I love our connection to the outdoors- there is space for the kids to be outside; they get to know the world through their senses. I have also made some amazing friends that I wouldn’t have if I weren’t here.
- Several years ago we went to New York City together for the AMS Conference, and we get to do that this year with Dallas for our professional development. I loved giving my own children the gift of Montessori- I love the kids here having the opportunity to grow and explore. The peace curriculum, phonics… all of it. I like to grow with all of you, but I grow most with the children because they make me a much better person. It’s amazing that after 15 years I still have so much to learn. We work hard with our accreditation to be the best school in the state and practice what we preach.
- I love the beauty of the outdoor space-the calm connection with the world around you, the space to play outside and honoring that world, and the value of non-traditional work like sewing and practical life. We are helping to develop a connection to the world, curiosity to explore and connect in a way that is rare and wonderful.
- I love you all dearly. I love the children dearly. I love watching them grow and seeing them reach life’s milestones and have amazing accomplishments. As a parent and as an employee- I love Montessori, and I know, because I’ve seen it over the years, that kids grow up to be accomplished, tolerant, accepting people.
The Board recognized the following strengths and opportunities for the school:
- The school is fully enrolled, and is in a good, stable space.
- The school community and Parent Association is a solid foundation with lots of opportunities to be together and share our strengths as individuals.
- The Montessori Method is authentic, accredited, tried and true; it is science-based by community-focused.
- We have an open-minded and passionate administration and faculty.
- We have a 28-year history, an impressive alumni and we fill an educational gap that Northwest Arkansas deeply needs.
Here are the highlighted strengths from the faculty:
- Authentic, high fidelity Montessori education
- Trees, grass, community, and an outdoor environment that gives us a connection to our Mother Earth
- A highly-educated, caring parent community that seeks Parent Education
- The relationships and bonds that we build with one another and the families at Walnut Farm
- There is always an invitation to return to joy.
The final question was, “What are the ways Walnut Farm impacts the NWA Community. Looking toward the future, where is the school headed; how can and does Walnut Farm make the most positive difference in the world?” Here is some of the feedback from the Walnut Farm Board Members:
- We have a long waiting list with people Arkansas from other places wanting to move to NW Arkansas who want to have Walnut Farm as an educational option; when we have space we can provide a good landing for folks who want to choose this education for their children. In the future, we might need to look at making more supply to fill the growing demand. We fill a void of providing authentic Montessori education, but we also just have the reputation of simply being a great school, and people should have access to that.
- Our impact on early childhood education is amazing. Our elementary program has doubled in the past year and there is a growing demand for high-quality Montessori Elementary. Having said this, I wonder if we could grow beyond the grades we already offer.
- Walnut Farm is a strong community. Our alumni become foot soldiers for Montessori education and build the argument that we need child-centered education in this community.
- We need to offer scholarships and get supportive grants to build our campus and diversify our community.
- We fill an educational void and are recognized as leaders in the state. We are building leaders; our students grow up to be global citizens. We have an obligation to have a ripple effect that goes farther and wider than we already do.
The following are reflections from the faculty:
- The people who leave here are critically-thinking human beings, and this makes its own impact. We offer the community an alternative- our school proves current brain science information- in line with neurology. As far as making an impact of possible future teachers, I think it would be great to lead to becoming a lab school, or a place that offers opportunities for other Montessori teachers to learn together through professional development measures.
- We send children off to become adults, as not just peacemakers but going beyond this. They are defenders of the good, activists, movement starters and supporters.
- Montessori education teaches open-mindedness, and we need more of that in this world. We also give tips to parents that they carry into their own lives and their children will have lived a life of being parented in a loving way that they will use to teach their own children.
- After having lived in other communities in other countries and cities, I think that NW Arkansas is a bubble. This is a bubble. And the philosophy of our school is in tune with the NW Arkansas community: joyful, respectful, outdoors-y. My friends who visit say, “This is so nice!” I think the Upper Elementary Program is an amazing program. The classroom is really helping the kids grow into adults- it fosters independence in a way that they would never get in another environment.
By design, the role of a wise board is different from that of the school’s staff. A good rule of thumb for a board member is to be forward-thinking, and to return to the question “How can I support Walnut Farm to be the very best school it can be for my grandchildren?” Alternatively, staff and faculty are concerned with the present day and immediate actions at hand. They are the boots-on-the-ground, handling the day-to-day interactions and operations of the school. Both entities hold necessary perspectives and are vitally important to the organization. Reflecting upon the thoughtful, heartfelt responses from so many stakeholders, I am struck by both the diverse ideas and the common themes everyone brought to the conversation. Like a kaleidoscope that changes as the shards of color fall into place, all of these reflections are beautiful in their design, and the central base remains constant. Walnut Farm Montessori’s mission is the core that holds the multiple frames of reference in this metaphor.
The responsibility of the Head of School is to hold the perspectives of all of the community members, to be accountable for remaining grounded in the present and tend to the immediate needs of the school while simultaneously keeping a watchful eye toward the future to help to carve out the best possible outcomes for all stakeholders.
It is challenging to compose a collective elevator pitch; it is my hope that this article gives the reader a more well-rounded account of the breadth and depth of perspectives that sit at the heart of Walnut Farm Montessori School. In the meantime, here are my thoughts:
Walnut Farm Montessori School is a nationally accredited Montessori School in Bentonville, Arkansas. It was established 28 years ago and welcomes families from all backgrounds, serving 130 children ages 18 months to 12 years of age. The intrinsic potential of each child is respected and nurtured in multi-age groupings. Experienced teachers carefully prepare indoor and outdoor Montessori environments to generate optimal conditions for individualized learning and intellectual, physical and spiritual growth. Parents are encouraged to embark on their own Montessori journeys and work in partnership with the school to create a caring community. In addition to exemplary academics, there is an emphasis on stewardship and Education for Peace. This focus ripples out to families, the community and the broader world.
Walnut Farm Montessori School aims to serve as a model and leader in the development and dissemination of authentic Montessori education in Arkansas. Increased enrollment and interest from the thriving NW Arkansas community indicates ardor for an authentic Montessori educational option in the region. Walnut Farm aims to meet the need of a growing population of families in Northwest Arkansas while first and foremost remaining steadfast in its mission to provide a Montessori education honoring community and individuality by promoting peace and empowering children for life-long learning.
Do you have a Walnut Farm Montessori elevator pitch? If so, I would love to hear it.