Nestled among towering trees and a sprawling park-like setting off West 8th Street, the Montessori Regional Charter School (MRCS) has found a perfect home.
Here, on 17.3 acres of the former Villa Maria College campus, the public charter school has flourished in a corner of Millcreek Township that serves as a gateway to Erie, Pennsylvania’s recreational jewel, Presque Isle State Park.
Since consolidating its former school buildings on West 6th Street and Sterrettania Road and moving to its new home in 2019, the Montessori Regional Charter School has invested millions in facility improvements to enhance and expand its tuition-free offerings for students, admitted by lottery, from 14 area public school districts in Kindergarten through eighth grade. Equally exciting, the Montessori Regional Charter School is contributing to the growth and vitality of the region as an educational and business hub, and to enhancements along the West 8th Street Corridor — between Pittsburgh Avenue and Peninsula Drive — as part of the Presque Isle Gateway Improvement Project.
As the charter school approaches its 20th year of operation in 2024, school officials say that Montessori has cemented its place as an educational leader and community partner.
Mark Zielinski, chief executive officer at MRCS since 2019 and a Montessori parent, describes the milestone anniversary as a testament to the school’s perseverance over the past 20 years. “Through the last 20 years the Montessori program has held true to its values: being student-centered, focused on the Montessori philosophy, student achievement and keeping a strong focus on team and community relationships,” Zielinski says. “Our significant growth in students, facilities and community participation serves to confirm the need for this educational programming in the region.”
Montessori Board President Melvyn Nair, a longtime Montessori advocate whose two children previously attended the school, adds, “Twenty years is a huge milestone, especially for a brick-and-mortar charter. We are very proud of Mark and the work that the administration, teachers and staff are doing, and it speaks for itself. We’re not only thriving, we’re excelling.”
Montessori Regional Charter School opened its doors for classes in the 2004–2005 school year. Established by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori, the learning method focuses on independence and choice. Rather than rote memorization or traditional instruction, the Montessori approach fosters individual creativity and curiosity, where students — in a multi-age environment — can develop and learn at their own pace, discovering their own unique talents and possibilities.
Zielinski, who holds degrees in education from both Penn State and Edinboro University (now PennWest), began teaching at the Montessori Regional Charter School in 2007 and found himself drawn to the Montessori way of teaching and obtained his Montessori certification on top of his Pennsylvania teaching certification. “Throughout that training, I learned more information about Montessori and the hands-on approach is really what sold me. The student independence and engagement in a classroom is something that is magical in a Montessori setting,” he explains.
Montessori Regional Charter School’s enrollment has grown significantly over the past 20 years. In 2004–2005, the charter school started with 116 students. By 2008– 2009, enrollment grew to 210, then 361 in 2013–2014 and 534 in 2018–2019. For the 2023–2024 school year, Montessori has a record enrollment of 650 students, along with a very long waiting list. A significant reason for the increase is the addition of seventh grade last year and eighth grade for the current school year, which also brings the addition of PIAA middle school sports, including basketball and cross country.
“The K–8 model is something that we’ve been looking at for many years, and finally, we’ve been able to work with the (public school) districts and add that to our charter, which is something that our board, teachers, parents and stakeholders wanted,” says Zielinski. “In a K–8 school, you have kindergarten students, but you also have eighth graders, who can be wonderful mentors and models for those younger students in the building too.”
Theresa Wyman, a Montessori parent and area high school teacher, is overjoyed that MRCS is now a K–8 school. Her daughter was part of the first seventh grade class last year and the newly added eighth grade class for 2023–2024. “Transitioning to a new school in seventh grade is really tough, even for the most social kid. My son, a rising 10th grader, is thriving in high school, but wished more than anything that he didn’t have to have a new school in the middle, and my daughter is thrilled to get to stay with her friends and the teachers she loves,” states Wyman. “I am impressed at the care MRCS has taken in setting up their seventh and now eighth grade classes. They are working to be sure the kids are prepared for high school academically and socially while staying true to their Montessori core.”
A Changing Campus
As demand for Montessori education continues to rise, the Montessori Regional Charter School has invested millions in the educational campus, which has a proud history in Erie dating back to 1925. Most notable is the addition of a covered walkway between its natatorium/gymnasium and main academic building. The school also has invested in playground and security equipment, heating ventilation/air-conditioning and boiler updates as well as renovations, supported by donations from the MRCS Foundation, and its expansive pool, which should be completed this fall. “We hope to provide the Erie community programming including exercise programs, adult lap swim, aqua fit and aqua exercise classes, and swim lessons for children of all ages,” adds Zielinski.
Already, the addition of an outdoor classroom has enhanced the Montessori experience, allowing students to explore and investigate the vibrant greenspace that makes up the expansive campus. “We’re always growing. We’re always changing for the betterment of the children,” continues Zielinski. “I think that’s one of the things that is such an important factor here. Montessori Regional Charter School is always considering the students. Our board has that same vision, and this property is such a wonderful place for students to have that Montessori hands-on experience inside and outside the classroom.”
A Community in Transformation
Montessori, along with its neighbors, the Erie County Community College, UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, West Erie Plaza, and The Shops at the Colony, has made significant investments to enhance the area as a vital community partner — a complement to the improvements under way as part of the Presque Isle Gateway Improvement Project. The project focuses on creating an attractive, safe, pedestrian-friendly corridor along West 8th Street (with the addition of burying power lines and adding sidewalks), allowing local businesses to thrive, encouraging additional private investment, and encouraging an in- crease in tourism and job opportunities.
“We’re all working together and upgrading this area to make it a welcoming community for our families and the Millcreek community,” explains Zielinski.
According to Millcreek Township Supervisor Kim Clear, the corridor improvements on West 8th Street will bring vibrancy and community. “With so many investments made by both the private and public sector, West 8th Street’s Gateway District will increase walkability and access to businesses and residential living in this area,” she says. “The Montessori School’s greenspaces offer grounds for walking, picnick- ing, reading and playing. Having Montessori’s common space nestled inside of the mixed- use corridor cultivates a sense of community and belonging.”
Clear believes Montessori’s investment in its campus demonstrates the school’s commitment to building community out- side the school walls. “The Montessori Regional Charter School came to Millcreek Township wanting to partner because they understand the true mean- ing of building a sense of belonging. They want to share what they have with all of Millcreek Township,” says Clear. “The investments they have made on campus are not just for their students, but also for the com- munity at large. Montessori builds relationships for the greater good, which is exactly what they have done with Millcreek Township. The vision of The Gateway to Presque Isle will become a reality because of partners like Montessori.”
The Montessori Regional Charter School has experienced some exciting changes over the past 20 years, and school officials say they are excited about what is to come.
“I’ve always believed that the Montessori school is such a value to the community, but even more now that we have that campus and the walking paths that are there; we are part of the community,” notes Nair. “That campus is being utilized in a way that encourages growth in the community. When you drive by, you can see the kids outside in the outdoor classroom space, and you can see the beauty of the updates on the campus. It’s at the heart of the revitalization of the corridor. The Erie area is lucky to have Montessori, and Montessori is lucky to be here.”
Zielinski also sees more opportunity for the school and community to work together. “We are proud the Montessori Regional Charter School is a respected vibrant collaborator in the Erie community,” he states. “When our students are succeeding, that means our community is succeeding and getting stronger.”
For more information about the Montessori Regional Charter School, visit mrcserie.org.