Transforming Community Education in Chicago
Community-based education facility
Supporting stronger communities
Sara Hruska was inspired by the Montessori approach to learning while growing up in Palos Park, Ill. For Hruska, her years at Southwest Montessori represented a formative experience that emphasized discovery and self-direction. Based on age-appropriate learning environments tailored to different stages of child development, the Montessori method has been practiced by educators and learners in nearly every corner of the globe since its beginnings in the late 19th century, and its relevance has never been stronger then it is today.
In 2016, while Hruska and her husband were seeking options for educating their own children in the Ravenswood neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side, they were disappointed to find limited high-quality options in the area for children under 2 years old.
“What we found is that an Early Childhood program was either built upon the conveniences of parents with limited commitment to an educational methodology or it was just the opposite. It might stay true to Montessori principles but isolated itself from the parents, culture, and community that it served.
We were looking for an authentic Montessori approach that also met the needs of modern families living in the city. This meant rethinking the structure of the day, longer hours, practical parent education that was tied to modern research, creating opportunities to build connection and community, and emphasizing time children spent in nature,” said Hruska. “We realized that we had the resources to create something that would benefit not only our family but the entire community, and that’s how Spark Montessori was born.”
They purchased the building – a former horse stable dating back to the 1880s – in 2017 and sought a small business loan to transform what was an industrial warehouse across the street from the local playground into a school. This included transforming the brick exterior of the building by adding many new windows, building 4 classrooms, 5 bathrooms, a kitchenette, and side yard to serve as an outdoor classroom.
As a woman-owned business that projected living-wage employment for up to 10 workers, the owners qualified for an SBA 7(a) loan through Community Reinvestment Fund, USA (CRF) that enabled them to construct building improvements, acquire working capital and hire additional teachers.
Today, with the help of CRF’s financing, Spark Montessori operates one toddler classroom and one primary classroom for children ages 15 months to six years. By its third year of operation, Spark Montessori expects to add two additional primary classrooms serving 75 total students. Long-term plans also include elementary-age expansion, which will allow primary students to continue their Montessori education at Spark beyond kindergarten.