With plans to expand its campus to include a new teaching kitchen and gymnasium, Hilltop Montessori School continues to wholly instill a passion for knowledge within its students.
By Lauren Lockhart
Photos by Bill Segrest
Over the hilltop, nestled amongst six acres of sustainable land in the town of Mt. Laurel sits a dynamic microcosm of educational discoveries, a place where a passion for learning dwells and connectivity thrives. Hilltop Montessori School is much more than a building where teachers teach and students learn; at Hilltop, students grab hold of the adventure of learning, creating an active environment where they are truly in charge of their own education.
“Everything at our school is very hands-on,” explains Head of School Michele Wilensky. “Our children are constantly engaged and constantly learning throughout the day.”
Walking through the classrooms of Hilltop Montessori School, you won’t see a traditional classroom setup. Within the airy, naturally-lit rooms of the school, you may find a teacher working one-on-one with a student to understand a challenging concept, while the classroom’s second teacher guides a small group in starting a new activity. Across the room, an older student patiently assists a younger student in a process he himself discovered a few years ago.
“Our classrooms are multi-age, and each student has the same teacher for three years,” explains Wilensky. “Because children come in as one of the younger students, and transition into being one of the older students, they grow in their leadership skills.”
Accredited by multiple academic organizations, Hilltop Montessori School is a private, non-profit school boasting an advanced curriculum under the Montessori educational method, a philosophy that emphasizes self-directed learning focused on advancing the whole child—that is, developing a student academically, socially, and emotionally.
For Hilltop, part of developing the whole child is providing students with an environment that allows for hands-on learning around every corner. The building is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, a certification that fundamentally instills the value of sustainability and global responsibility within students. Each classroom opens up to its own outdoor classroom where students can plant, nurture, and harvest produce to be used for their daily snacks.
“We work with our children in engaging them daily on healthy nutrition choices,” says Wilensky. “We raise bok choy and heirloom tomatoes in the garden, and we let the children help prepare their own snacks.”
In addition to the gardens—which are registered with the Edible Schoolyard Project, a nationwide movement to incorporate fresh, healthy eating into schools—Hilltop boasts other practical learning experiences, including a native plant trail and real, working apiary from which the school harvests its own honey.
“We have had several students go through beekeeping classes, so they help us with tending to the bees,” says Wilensky. “The neatest thing is that we’re getting our children to understand seed-to-plate nutrition by incorporating it into their education.”
Hilltop will be broadening these hands-on learning initiatives upon the completion of Phase 3, the school’s recently announced plans to expand the campus facilities. The Phase 3 plans, which will be completed in 2016, will include a science lab, a state-of-the-art media center, and a gymnasium that can be used by the community after school, on weekends, and during the summer.
There is one more addition in the works that Wilensky is especially enthusiastic about.
“I think the most exciting part of Phase 3 is going to be the teaching kitchen that we’ll be adding,” she explains. “We’ll be able to take everything directly from our gardens and make all of our healthy lunches right here on site.”
Students will be able to learn, create, and cook in the kitchen daily, and the facility will also be open for use by the Mt. Laurel community. Wilensky explains that part of having an eco-friendly campus is fully utilizing its facilities; by opening Hilltop’s doors to the public during off-hours, the school becomes a valuable institution not only for students, but also for the community at large.
Says Wilensky, “EBSCO Industries was so kind to us—they gave us over six acres of land as a gift. This is our way of saying ‘thank you’ to EBSCO and the town of Mt. Laurel for letting us be a part of their space.”
Upon completion of the teaching kitchen, Wilensky anticipates return visits from some special local chefs Hilltop has hosted in the past, including the acclaimed Chef Chris Hastings of Hot and Hot Fish Club, an active supporter of Hilltop who has visited the school to cook with students. Another local chef that is involved with Hilltop is Chef Chris Harrigan of StonesThrow Bar & Grill, who hosts an annual farm-to-table themed dinner to help raise funds for Hilltop’s programming.
The completion of Phase 3 will add another layer to the multi-faceted learning curriculum that Hilltop Montessori School provides its students. In addition to its core curriculum and focus on sustainability and healthy nutrition, Hilltop teaches computer technology, Spanish, music, and physical education courses in hiking and tennis, among others.
“By trying new things, our students are working towards their potential and loving learning,” explains Wilensky. “Our Montessori education addresses the whole child, and it really sets the child up for life.”
A dedication to enveloping young minds with a variety of educational subjects that they can see, touch, and feel is what makes Hilltop Montessori School an institution like no other. By letting its children take an active leadership role in their own education, Hilltop helps develop these students into leaders for life.
“Parents see their child grow at Hilltop into a confident, aware, and independent thinker who wants to be a role model for others,” Wilensky pauses. “That’s when they see the difference that a Montessori education has made.”
This story is sponsored by Hilltop Montessori School. To learn more about Hilltop, visit its website.