The expansion of a junior high program and a new toddler program will be among many strong points found at the Montessori School of Fort Smith beginning in the fall, predicted one official.

Located at 3908 Jenny Lind, the private school will begin offering an eighth-grade program for students as part of its "building one year at a time" plan, said Jessica Hayes, head of school. The addition and other changes are due to the school's increase in students; the student population was 88 during the 2014-15 school year and is estimated to climb to as many as 125 students this fall, she said.

"Last year was the first year to start our junior high program — we did that with seventh-graders," Hayes said. "Those seventh-graders will now be our eighth-graders, and we have several students moving up into the seventh grade.

"And in the fall of 2019, we'll go all the way through the ninth grade," she added.

The Montessori School of Fort Smith also will offer a toddler program for those as young as 18 months in the fall. This program and the schools' early childhood class (ages 3-6) will be housed "just down the street" in the Seventh-day Adventist Church's old school building, which will be called the Children's House and is located at 4321 Jenny Lind, Hayes said.

"The Seventh-day Adventist Church used to have a school, but it wasn't being used on a regular basis," she said. "This fall, we will be leasing space from them and putting our youngest students in there, so we'll have our main campus and the Children's House." 

Burnham Rand, pastor for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, said he was excited about the "partnership" to help the Montessori School address its student growth.

"The old school house is about 5,000 square feet, I believe, and they're having to do some upkeep and some modification, but it's in good shape," he said.

So far, the lease agreement will "run through the school year" and will be subject for re-evaluation by church officials and board members for possible renewal, Rand said.

"We are happy for the Montessori School's growth," he said. "That is a good thing."

The Montessori School's main building is being renovated to include new bathrooms, new floors, new paint and more, Hayes said. The renovation, which is being done by Petree Construction, is expected to cost about $160,000, she said.

"We have run out of space for our students," Hayes said. "This year, we were super-crowded. We were so low on space."

The school's previous plans called for building a new facility at Chaffee Crossing to address the school's rapid student growth, but those plans were suspended when school officials decided that renovating the existing building was more ideal, Hayes said.

"Our goal for the renovation is a 30-day time frame starting July 5, and we financed through First National Bank; we appreciate them for making this possible," she said. "We've done some fundraising and, of course, if anyone would like to make a donation, we would love that."

Those wishing to make a donation or obtain information on the school can call Hayes at (479) 650-3623. 

"We find that people who are moving into Fort Smith are looking for something other than a standard, traditional education for their children," she said. "They are looking for new and different ways for their children to learn, and there's a lot of science coming out that supports what Dr. Maria Montessori started doing 110 and 120 years ago.

"At the Montessori School of Fort Smith, children are learning at the pace that is right for them," Hayes added. "We have first-grade students who are doing fourth-grade math, but maybe in language they are still at the first-grade level. In other schools, students aren't working at their level in a lot of cases."

The Montessori method also focuses beyond textbook-type lessons, she said. "Grace" and "courtesy" also make up crucial parts of a Montessori student's education, Hayes said.

"This is the way you speak to people and the way you treat people," she said. "A whole side of Montessori strives to teach children they have a role in the world and universe, and that giving back and being kind to others is really important."