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Meet Kelsey OKeefe of ArborCreek Montessori Academy in Farmers Branch

Today we’d like to introduce you to Kelsey OKeefe.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Kelsey. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
When I moved to Dallas six years ago, I was finishing up maternity leave and ready to return to working as an attorney full-time. I stumbled on to Montessori education when seeking out daycare options, and I found ArborCreek Montessori School in Farmers Branch for my then one-year-old and two-year-old children. I quickly became fascinated by the Montessori method of development and especially the focus on independence. I saw right away that these tiny people were building their own personalities, learning how to navigate conflict resolution, and engaging in self-care and care for the community environment. I loved watching them gain self-confidence as they took on learning challenges. After just a few months of seeing the benefits my children gained from this environment, I was totally hooked, and I’ve continued to dive deeper into reading and research on childhood development. I’m fascinated as I watch children learn, and I want to know what we can do to help children become more resilient, independent, and grounded in character in today’s world.

When I was asked by Sima Cheregosha, ArborCreek’s Head of School, to help with a project to expand the ArborCreek program into adolescence, I jumped at the chance. She asked if I would join as a volunteer and soon, I decided to put my legal practice on the back burner and join the ArborCreek Montessori Academy project as a full-time volunteer. I was drawn in because Middle school was a particularly difficult time in terms of developing my own self-confidence and independence, and I wish I’d had a structure like Montessori to help me to not only excel in academics but to pursue curiosity and to experience learning as something so much more than getting the right answers on tests. Without learning strong self-reliance and confidence skills, everything else is harder than it needs to be, and we are ultimately blocked from realizing our fullest potential.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
I am learning something new almost daily! The education landscape in Dallas includes a huge variety of wonderful educational choices. It can be hard for the small team at ArborCreek to have our voice heard among the many schools that also have a vision for how to best serve children in our community. Also, Montessori is not a trademarked method, and there are many different businesses using “Montessori” in name only or as just a small part of their overall services even if they are not actually following the essentials of the philosophy. As a result, we hear from people who’ve received mixed information about what Montessori truly is and we spend a lot of time in the explanation process. Working through these and other logistical issues is an education in itself, and I am grateful for those days where I start out totally lost and come out on the other side of the problem with some brand new insight. (Or just come out on the other side in one whole piece – but preferably I get the insight, too!)

So, as you know, we’re impressed with ArborCreek Montessori Academy – tell our readers more, for example, what you’re most proud of and what sets you apart from others.
I am currently the Director of Development and Operations at ArborCreek Montessori Academy, a nonprofit school serving children in the 4th through 8th grades. This school was started three years ago as a sister program to ArborCreek Montessori School, where my children are enrolled in the lower elementary program. ACMS is celebrating its 20th year of serving children from infancy through 3rd grade with authentic Montessori education.

When we joined the ArborCreek community five years ago, we gained another family. I quickly saw firsthand that the Montessori classroom is a micro-community wherein each person holds an important role, is expected and encouraged to contribute, and can freely follow her curiosity as she moves through the carefully crafted curriculum. The students in my children’s classrooms represent a wide variety of backgrounds: cultures, languages, faiths and religions, and family structures different from our own. They all come together every day to help each other with new lessons, to play, and to form their own special mini-society.

As I’ve done more and more research, I am finding that recent scientific studies have validated concepts about development and mind-body connections that Dr. Montessori observed over 100 years ago as she crafted this holistic approach toward childhood development. I love those essential concepts such as kindness, grace and courtesy, peaceful problem solving, self-regulation, time-management, and personal responsibility are treated as fundamental skills that are learned and practiced in a community setting. This is an aspect that I feel is under-emphasized in other environments. We can all learn information, but Montessori helps children to learn how to learn. They hone their natural ability to strategize and problem-solve, they gain confidence in working independently and as part of a larger community, and they learn life skills of caring for themselves and their community. So amazing!

Over the past three years, our Upper School, ArborCreek Montessori Academy, opened the Upper Elementary and Middle School campus, and we will have our first 8th-grade graduate this year! Our vision is to grow over the next five years to serve a total of 125 students. We also plan to make our program accessible for working families through our sliding scale scholarship program. With a committed community, we can serve every family who seeks a platform for life-long success. My dream is for children to understand who they are and what gifts they have to share with the world as well as to experience the joy of working hard to find and realize their purpose. This may seem a tall order, but I believe Montessori provides an incredible framework and foundation to make this a reality for all children.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
ArborCreek is always looking for ways to serve more in our community, so we are looking to add some after school programs and creative options for families to benefit from the Montessori method even if they are not enrolled with us. We are also hosting several workshops in the new year on different elements of Montessori in the home, Montessori curriculum and specialized materials, parenting teens in the digital age, strategies for helping adolescents build and maintain confidence and more. We hope these opportunities will help our community to grow even more because – simply put – the more we grow, the more children we can serve so that they can realize their greatest potential. And that’s how the world continues to become a better place day after day.

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