20 Years of Nurturing Kids, Families at Sunset Hills Montessori School

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As Sunset Hills Montessori School prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary, school founder Eileen Minarik reflects on the hundreds of students that have grown up with the school.

Those kids who started as tots in 1994 are now graduating from college, and Minarik says she can’t wait until the second generation of SHMS students starts enrolling.

“We’re like a family,” Minarik says of both her staff and the relationship with the school’s parents and children.

The family feeling comes, in part, from most of the staff remaining at SHMS for a long time, says Minarik. Many staffers have been there 10 years or more. Minarik says she is thrilled to promote from within, sending many from SHMS to additional teacher training.

Minarik says teachers get to know the whole family — even the extended family.

“We have established a certain atmosphere,” she said. “Grandparents, au pairs, nannies, all caregivers of our children. They are very much a part of the community. There are now five Montessori schools in Reston. They all have different personalities. Our personnel makes the difference.”

Sunset Hills Montessori campus/Credit: SHMSMinarik had already been involved in area Montessori schools for many years when she and her husband Joe opened Sunset Hills Montessori Children’s House in Isaac Newton Square in 1994.

By the end of the decade, after adding primary grades, the school was outgrowing its space.In 2003, the Minariks bought the former United Christian Parish building at 11180 Ridge Heights Rd.

Minarik said she used to drive by at night when the building was a church and see serenity in the lights of an evening service. When the space became available, she envisioned that sanctuary as an incredible place for the SHMS community.

She was even able to find the original church architect, Lawrence Cook, (who was also a Montessori parent) to renovate and add on to the building, which now has 24,000 square feet of space.

When the school moved to Ridge Heights it also changed its name to better reflect its offerings for toddlers through sixth graders. The current enrollment is 185 students.

The current location is nestled in a residential neighborhood, and Minarik says the school takes full advantage of the nearby Reston lakes, woods and paths. Also, many families are specifically looking for a school that they can reach by walking or biking, something they can easily do if they live close by, says Minarik.

The school has a host of extracurricular and after-school activities, says Director of Admissions Garrett Wilhelm. Among them: yoga, soccer, arabic, spanish and cooking. The school’s International Day attracts hundreds of community members. Last week, the entire Elementary program traveled downtown via Metro to attend the U.S. Science and Engineering Festival at the Washington Convention Center. Of course, they ran into some of Minarik’s former students on the Metro.

Prospective families are invited to join the school community for the May 18 anniversary celebration from 2 to 4 p.m. at the school. There will be music, entertainment, food games and prizes, as well as a tribute to the Minariks and a slideshow of SHMS’ history.

Photo: Sunset Hills Montessori campus/Credit: SHMS

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