INDIAN TRAIL – Italian physician Maria Montessori came up with a type of education 100 years ago grounded in the belief that all students have an innate desire to learn. Now Liane Watson wants to bring her own Montessori school to Indian Trail.

If Watson can get her rezoning application approved, the 0.53-acre property and building that used to be Miss Donna's Bright Beginnings on Woodland Road will reopen, re-envisioned as Hope Montessori School.

"[In 1907, Montessori] was a medical doctor and anthropologist working with children who were considered uneducable," Watson told planning board members May 18. "She found that children really wanted to learn, and what they needed was the right environment – that they could practically teach themselves if the environment was set up."

If approved, Watson's Hope Montessori would sort about 50 students into two age groups: one for students 18 to 36 months old and another for 3- to 6-year-olds. Within the groups, Watson would allow ages to mix.

"Montessori found that was very beneficial to children," she said. "The younger ones were observing the older ones that were mastering tasks, and it gave them something to strive for. At the same time, it gives the older children the opportunity to help and teach others, and it feels like more of a home setting that way too."

Although some nearby residents are nervous about what a new school could mean for traffic, Watson has a plan she thinks will keep cars coasting as quickly as ever. Except for an early care period and a mid-day pick up opportunity, Watson said parents would have to agree to her efficient drop off/pick up schedule.

"Between 8 and 9, we'll have staff outside doing the carpool line," she said. "I've been doing this for 20-plus years. I can get a child out of a car seat and into the building real quick. In the two schools I have worked at previously, that doesn't back up."

A study by NCDOT determined three cars could stack up onsite and that only one or two might overflow onto Woodland Road at a time. The analysis predicted no impact on nearby Old Monroe Road.

Accounting for carpooling and siblings, board member Chris McGuire predicted the impact would be even smaller than anticipated.

"What drew me to Montessori," Watson said, "was when somebody I had babysat for when I was a teenager went to a school in Raleigh, and he had Down syndrome. That was prior to inclusions in school, so I knew there was something special about Montessori if Jeremy could be in with typically developing children, even at that point."

Watson earned her Montessori credentials as a primary teacher in 1999. Having had an associate degree prior to that, she returned to school in 2009 to finish her bachelor's degree and earn a master's degree from N.C. State University in family life and parent education.

"I am currently enrolled in a Montessori leadership certification that will finish this summer," Watson added. "Then I promised my husband I was done with school."

This won't be Watson's first time directing a Montessori school. Watson just left Renaissance Montessori in Cary last year to follow her daughter and 2-year-old granddaughter to Union County and set up her own school.

"Moving in the middle of a pandemic and trying to start a business has been interesting," Watson said, "but I figured if I can get through this year, I can do anything."

If everything pans out, Watson wants to spend $100,000 renovating the building.

"One of my goals is to work with local people as much as possible," she said. "I've had different contractors come in to give me estimates. About half of everyone that has come into this building has said, 'My wife went here for preschool,' or 'My cousin went here,' or 'My daughter went here.' People seem to really know Miss Donna, and loved her, and are happy to see that the building is going to be used again for children."

Planning board members liked the proposal.

"I'm familiar with Montessori and I'm very excited that we're going to have a school here," said Meg Fielding, board chair. "Certainly when you're starting something new, as I guess it was Mary Poppins who said, you should start the way you're going to go on. By starting with such a strong plan, I think you're going to be successful not only with your traffic, but with your students."

Next, Watson will have to convince town council.

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