Focus on Black-owned businesses: New Macedonia preschool aims to give children a Montessori Life

April Helms
Akron Beacon Journal
Lydia Stephens, owner/director of Montessori Life preschool, plays a matching game with her son and student Israel, 2, as teacher Brandi Crawford works with other students.

When Lydia Stephens and her husband temporarily moved to Washington state several years ago for his military career, Stephens said one of the first things she asked the other military families was what they did for preschool care.

Her daughter, now 9, was 3 and her now 7-year-old son was a baby.

“I did not just want to send them somewhere,” said Stephens, who had graduated from Case Western Reserve University with a nursing degree.

What she found out was that most of the other military families had one spouse stay at home “or they worked part-time.” But those that did enroll their children in a preschool sent them to a Montessori preschool.

Stephens researched Montessori education which, according to the American Montessori Society’s website, “is student-led and self-paced but guided, assessed, and enriched by knowledgeable and caring teachers, the leadership of their peers, and a nurturing environment.” She sent her daughter to a Montessori preschool and liked what she saw.

“My little girl was coming home so confident,” Stephens said. “She wanted to cook and dress herself. That is when I started to study and learn about Montessori.”

When the Stephens family moved back to Ohio, setting up residence in Solon, Stephens said she wanted to enroll her son, now 4, in a Montessori preschool but found enrolling in one to be a challenge. She said the schools in tend to be “extremely exclusive, while in Washington state there are more schools and they are more inclusive.”

“I did find a preschool for my son but when I found out I was having twins, it became an urgency,” Stephens said. “Three kids in preschool, that is really expensive, especially if you wanted to give them a Montessori education.”

Stephens started to mull the idea of starting her own preschool, but hesitated at first because she lacked the experience.

“It was something I thought long and hard about,” she said. “But I have no business background.”

However, she talked to Sheryse Henderson, the lead pastor at Faith Fellowship Church in Macedonia, where the family attends worship services.

“She said: ‘Just try it, we have space here,’” Stephens said. “’Start it, and see where it goes.’”

Lydia Stephens, owner/director of Montessori Life preschool, watches as Casey Dittoe, 3, and R.J. Ham, 4, work on learning the letter "J" with teacher Brandi Crawford.

Stephens did just that, opening Montessori Life preschool in Macedonia in April.

“We were going to open in March, but that’s when everything shut down” because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said. “But we kept going, and we are still here.”

The preschool “deeply values the Montessori philosophy and believes that it lends itself to the way that God intended for children to learn," according to its website. However, it is not affiliated with the American Montessori Society or other Montessori organizations.

The preschool celebrates Christian holidays but doesn't "force or encourage students to adopt the Christian faith," according to its website.

Lydia Stephens, owner/director of Montessori Life preschool, sits in the classroom of the preschool.

Seven students — including Stephens'  2½-year-old twins — currently are enrolled in the preschool for children ages 2 to 5. Four more students are scheduled to start in March, Stephens said.

There are options for full-day for three days, full-day for four days, part day, early drop-off and extended day, and a remote learning pod for kindergarten through sixth grade.  

Stephens said the school is accepting new enrollments. There is room for three classroom communities, one of which is full and following the COVID-19 guidelines.

“It’s worked out really well for us,” she said. “We are working on our second classroom.”

Along with Stephens, there are three other staff members at Montessori Life, including a kindergarten through third grade certified teacher, an experienced public preschool teacher and a secretary/IT professional.

“We all learned Montessori together,” Stephens said. “We met with a certified teacher and are learning the skills and beauty of the approach. It’s so different from how we are taught as adults. We are teaching ourselves and learning, and applying what we have learned. We are also learning from our students, seeing what they want to learn and what they explore.”

A typical day at the preschool starts with drop-off at 8 a.m., when students have their temperature checked and they are screened before they enter the building as part of COVID-19 protocols.

Lydia Stephens, owner/director of Montessori Life preschool, second from right, works with teacher Brandi Crawford, right, with the children at the preschool in Macedonia.

Monday and Wednesday, the students have yoga; Tuesdays and Thursdays are more open, with imaginative play and games such as red light, green light, Stephens said. The class starts at 9 a.m. with a song.

Currently, the classes are focusing on the various continents, Stephens said. Last month, they focused on Europe. This month, the students are learning about Africa. The students then have a work period, where students work on a project of their choosing, for about an hour and a half. After that time, students have a snack period, where they practice skills such as manners, sharing and keeping the environment clean.

Students can learn about topics such as the weather and different cultures, Stephens said. They pack their own lunches and talk about nutrition and healthy food choices.

“The afternoon is more open,” Stephens said. “They do have a rest period, but it’s optional. Most will take a nap. Everyone is different. Some never nap, and some sleep until 2.”

Students who do not feel like taking a siesta will engage in another self-guided work session until 2:30 p.m., when they all work together “to get the place tidy,” Stephens said.

“We generally wrap up by about 3ish,” she said.

Stephens said opening and running Montessori Life “has been a dream come true.”

“I’m so grateful for it,” she said. “For a long time I disqualified myself from doing this, but just having enough passion to do something like this has been enough. Early childhood education is a passion. I’ve learned what I’ve needed to through passion.”

One day, Stephens said, she would love a building of her own, a structure custom-designed for younger children, including smaller bathrooms and a smaller kitchen.

“I’d love to re-create an entire home just for kids,” she said. “A home for children to do preschool and learn.”

Reporter April Helms can be reached at ahelms@thebeaconjournal.com

Lydia Stephens, owner/director of Montessori Life preschool in Macedonia, interacts with Natalia Loftin, 3, and R.J. Ham, 4, at the preschool.

At a glance

Name: Montessori Life

Owner: Lydia Stephens 

Description: Preschool that "deeply values the Montessori philosophy"

Established: April 2020

Address: 10277 Valley View Road, Macedonia (Faith Fellowship Church)

Phone number: 330-551-5300

Website: www.thatmontessorilife.org

Hours: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday with additional options, including extended hours and a Friday option. 

About the series

Throughout the month of February, the Beacon Journal is profiling Black-owned businesses in Summit County. Read more of these profiles at https://bit.ly/3jb0h1e. The Beacon Journal will continue to highlight minority-owned businesses as part of its ongoing regular coverage.

Have a suggestion for a business to feature? Email us at bjnews@thebeaconjournal.com.