Norwich – The man in the old TV commercial who bragged about being so impressed with a product that he bought the company, has nothing on Patrice Champagne.
In 1985, Patrice and her husband, William, were so disheartened that the Maria Montessori School in Greeneville, where they had enrolled their son a year earlier, was considering closing, they bought the school.
Patrice Champagne will become the principal of the school.
“I was like, ‘Can it be difficult to run a school?’” She said Thursday. “Yes. I quickly found out that I had no idea and that running a school wasn’t a business. It was a lot bigger.”
The couple consulted Montessori experts, Patrice took administration training and they continued on their way.
Over the next 35 years, what became the Montessori Discovery School also got much bigger. Les Champagnes looked after the two primary classes of the school for children aged 3 to 6 in premises rented from the former St. Mary’s School in Greeneville and later at the Frères de Joseph Synagogue, until that they can find a new home.
William Champagne, a real estate agent specializing in historic homes, quickly found an old farmhouse on Dudley Street with four acres, plus an acre across the street. Dedicated families helped fund the purchase and renovations.
The couple ceded ownership to a non-profit corporation governed by a board of trustees, and the new Montessori Discovery School had a permanent home at 218 Dudley St., Norwich.
The farm isn’t quite gone, with two llamas, 10 chickens, three office cats, and pets in all five animal categories: amphibians, reptiles, birds, fish, and mammals.
A new building in 2005 allowed the school to expand to the sixth grade.
Today, at 71 years old, Patrice Champagne is ready to “pass the baton” of his “very special gem” to the next generation. She retired on Friday as school principal and took on the new part-time role of school affairs manager.
“Patrice is a remarkable person and she gave us this wonderful gift from MDS,” said Benjamin Breault, Chairman of the Board of Directors. “We will spend the next year celebrating it and we will always remember how Patrice has enriched all of our lives.”
Kathryn Procko, 35, toddler program manager since 2017, mother of two at the school and coordinator of the school’s COVID-19 response, has been appointed by the board as the school’s new principal .
“Doing it all, being in charge of admissions and developing staff, facilities and finances, it gets overwhelming,” said Champagne. “Technology alone is a huge piece. And change needs a younger eye, needs someone who is more of a parent than a grandparent.”
One of Champagne’s grandsons graduated from Montessori Discovery School in 2020, and a second will enter third grade at the school this year.
Procko, 35, of Stonington heard about the Montessori Discovery School from a neighbor. She visited and fell in love with the school and its philosophy. Procko enrolled his son Henry in 2012. He will be entering sixth grade this year. His younger brother, Elliott, will be entering second year.
In 2017, Procko, then a special education teacher for the early years at Norwich Public Schools, learned that the Montessori Discovery School wanted to open a toddler program for children aged 18 months to 3 years old. She “jumped at the chance” and worked with Champagne to build the program.
A year later, she approached Champagne and told him that she wanted to learn how to be a school administrator. Procko trained in the Montessori administration and applied to become Champagne’s successor.
Procko said she was drawn to the Montessori philosophy from the start. The program emphasizes small group teaching, team teaching and hands-on learning. The program helps students “become joyful learners who confidently engage in our world,” she cited in the mission statement.
“This is why a lot of parents choose to come here,” said Procko. “My husband and I wanted our children to be compassionate to their peers and friends, to advocate for themselves and others. This is the foundation they get.
The school now has around 50 to 60 students. The toddler program includes a class with a teacher and an assistant. The primary program for children aged 3 to 6 has a teacher and an assistant. And the elementary program for students in grades three to six has two teachers and an assistant.
There is a school principal, an administrative assistant and now a part-time charge d’affaires.
The school rents for the maintenance and upkeep of the grounds, and before the coronavirus pandemic, organized work days for volunteer parents to weed and beautify the grounds. Procko hopes to restore that this year.
Tuition fees this year will be $ 12,300 for full-time toddlers; $ 11,200 for full-time elementary school children; $ 11,200 for full-time kindergarten and $ 11,450 for elementary school children. Half-day options are available for toddlers and preschoolers.
The school offers financial aid on a needs-based basis and last year awarded $ 95,000 in tuition rebates, Champagne said.
As a sales agent, Champagne hopes to analyze registrations, where students are coming from – usually less than half an hour away – to develop the school.
She also hopes to work with the University of Connecticut extension system to create a plan to manage wetlands, fields and brush. Students venture into the school grounds in small groups for scientific exploration.
The Montessori Discovery School continued in-person learning last year, with seven students initially enrolled in distance learning. All returned to full in-person learning in May, Procko said.
The school had no coronavirus cases on site, she said, acknowledging the dedication of staff and parents for adhering to safety measures to keep the school open.
“It shows how much our community values our school,” said Procko.