Donna Hargrave gazes at the house and surrounding property at the corner of Northeast Everett Street and 23rd Avenue.
To the untrained eye, it appears to be little more than an old blue farmhouse and shop building, with grass that needs trimming.
But to Hargrave, the administrator of Camas Montessori School, it represents the future, a long-held dream of hers to own property, rather than rent space for her school.
“We are excited to start building our own school on our own purchased property,” she said. “What I like most about this is that our classrooms will have access to our own patio and raised garden area. It’s nice to have a big outdoor space.”
Hargrave, 59, founded Camas Montessori in 1988 and has rented space from Camas Friends Church on Northeast Third Avenue since 2004. The school serves children ages 2 1/2 to 6 in multi-age classrooms. The philosophy behind it is that learning must focus on the child’s needs, so educational experiences must vary in the kind and degree so that each student’s potential may be challenged.
“This community of ages really helps the children to become whole,” Hargrave said. “It helps develop communication, independence and social skills.”
In addition, the older children often help the younger ones learn new tasks, which helps them develop the ability to work with others at different skill levels.
To say that Hargrave is passionate about the Montessori philosophy is an understatement.
Both of her children spent their early years immersed in Montessori teachings. When Hargrave had to move her school from St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Camas to its present location, she took out a loan for $140,000 to remodel the space, using the home she owns with husband Paul as collateral.
“I have loved early childhood education since the time I was 5 years old,” she said. “In high school, I did student teaching at that level and love it. They are so affective, funny and real.”
Her love for the Montessori philosophy began in the 1970s, when she began teaching Spanish at Skinner Montessori School in Vancouver.
“It’s really all about respecting a child’s independence and helping them reach their goals,” she said. “My coworkers think I am crazy because I like to teach and administrate. I like interacting with the kids, parents and community as a whole.”
She continues, “As an administrator, I get to share my ideas and vision with parents and the executive board. I like it that others share this vision.”
The vision to own property began 10 years ago when the school formed a non-profit. Since then, the board has raised money through various auctions, saving enough to finally purchase the nearly one-acre property for $257,000 in late 2013 on which to build, as Hargrave puts it, “our dream school.”
“This will be our sole responsibility,” she said. “We don’t have to go through a process to change things. The church [we rent from] has been very accommodating but sometimes it takes time.”
She is planning a ground-breaking ceremony for later in the summer, where students will be invited to bring shovels and help start digging.
Hargrave noted that the Camas community has been very supportive of the project.
“I get such a good feeling from them on this,” she said. “People who saw our sign for the proposed development have all been very positive.”
She has also received support from her executive board, especially President Matt Martinez.
“He has volunteered hundreds of hours and received many discounts for us from his own contacts in the property development field,” she said. “It is because of our alumni and present families’ support that we can make this happen.”
All three of Martinez’s children have attended Camas Montessori.
“They excelled there,” he said. “They have all had great success in primary school because of it. I was Montessori educated as well and really wanted to give back.”
The Vancouver real estate broker found the new school site, negotiated the purchase price and worked with engineers and a general contractor to move the project forward.
“I had the contacts, so I was able to reach out to people,” he said. “Some donated a vast majority of their work to us.”
Pacland, an engineering firm based out of Clackamas, Ore., donated much of their services. General contractor Carl Hoppel of Fosburg Enterprises has helped Camas Montessori through the conditional use permit process and in selecting a steel framed building to keep costs down.
“It is because of our alumni and present families’ support that we can make this happen,” Hargrave said.
Martinez noted that a vast majority of preschools rent space in other facilities, such as churches or existing schools.
“This is typically not something a preschool would have the capacity to do,” he said. “But I think the community is ready for something like this. Early education is a critical component of academic success.”