A little over 2 years ago, I took a tour of a tuition-free Montessori school here in Central Florida. Paul Smith, our newest string player at Blue Man, had told me about it. His kids went to school there, and he absolutely loved the school, the teachers, the other parents, and the Montessori philosophy that was implemented throughout.
This was at a time when Taiyo was still in Japan. He was scheduled to return to the States ahead of Yuki, and begin 4th grade over here. But I needed to find a school.
The 1st move:
I had flown up to Idaho to drive my Mom, a car full of stuff, and her little doggie, Riley to Orlando. She was moving from Idaho to move in with me, so that together, we could handle taking care of Taiyo. Working a night time job as a Blue Man drummer can make child care scheduling very tricky.
The kids in Montessori schools are allowed to be self governing. Not in a Lord of the Flies, tribal-warring chaotic manner, but they are provided with a scientifically studied and developed method that works with children’s natural curiosities, and love of learning. Through this method they learn time management, and self-empowerment, as well as all the nuts and bolts of standard schooling. From the time I first began learning about Montessori schooling, I knew I wanted Taiyo to be in a Montessori school. The problem, as it seemed, was that traditional Montessori schools are mostly private, and as such, are rather expensive.
So when Paul told me that there was such thing as a tuition-free Montessori school, and that it was a great school, I was super excited! I looked up the school, which had recently changed it’s name from Montessori of Winter Garden to Innovation Montessori Ocoee (IMO), and booked a tour. At the time, they were located in a kind of dingy strip mall, but had made it work. On that first tour, I knew that this was what I wanted for Taiyo. Everything about the school resonated with me. We snaked thru the rooms as a tour group, and saw kids all busily working, some individually, some in small groups, all a-buzz with activity. All the kids were engaged, and into what they were doing. The Montessori philosophy may not work for all parents or students, but the whole thing was a hit for me.
I knew then that I would do whatever it took to get Taiyo in this school. They take new students based on a lottery. It’s all random, except that kids with Montessori experience and military families get a bump to the front of the line.
I entered Taiyo into the lottery for the 2018-19 school year. In Feb of 2018 I found out that Taiyo got #58 on the waitlist. Not so good.
The 1st School:
I began to look into getting Taiyo that bump for Montessori experience. So I looked into all the Montessori schools in the Orlando area. I went and toured several, and eventually decided on Maitland Montessori School (MMS). It was close enough to where we lived at the time, and looked like a very nice school. But… it cost $10,000/year!!! After some quick math I decided to go for it. By putting myself on the strictest of budgets, I would save up the entire tuition cost before the school year started. The fact that my mother was living with me made it possible: she was paying half of my mortgage every month as rent.
It felt great to walk into that school and be able to write them a check for the entire amount, which also earned me a discount! Taiyo had a great experience at MMS that year, and I’m so grateful that circumstances worked out for him to be able to attend.
I entered Taiyo again in the IMO lottery, this time for the 2019-20 school year. With the Montessori experience bump, he got #4 on the waitlist. Much better. At that point, I felt like he would make it in, and Mom was itching to buy a house. So I made a judgement call- a proverbial leap of faith. The plan was to have Mom buy a house in Ocoee (near the school), then have Taiyo and I move in, effectively buying me some time to prepare my house for sale, sell my house, and at the same time give me time to shop for a new home.
The 2nd move:
Mom found a house in Ocoee, close to IMO, but a good 20-30 minutes from where I had been living. We moved Mom into her new house, and at the same time, put most of my family’s stuff into a PODS storage unit, and tried to keep just enough stuff to move in with Mom temporarily. By the end of the 2019 school year, I was driving Taiyo 45 minutes to school at MMS every morning- it was a haul, but again, it was worth it. I would spend days working on the old house while Taiyo was in school, then go to work at night. I can’t believe how much work it was to prepare that house for sale.
Sold the old house, and started looking for a new one. I was thinking that I would have a good amount of time, because of living with Mom, but I was also trying to buy, and be pretty much moved in to the new house before Yuki returned in October. That time went very quickly. The right things were said to me at the right times, and I ended up driving down a few different roads than usual, and found a beauty of a home that had some really terrible pictures in it’s listing (so they hadn’t had any lookers), but was beautiful in person. Mom and Taiyo came with me, and we all fell in love immediately. I took pictures and sent them to Yuki- she liked it too.
Bought the new house- with the intention of making the 3rd bedroom into my studio. But something about that didn’t feel right. It would mean that we couldn’t have visitors- no extra bedroom, so while the house was an upgrade, I would also like to be able to invite people to stay so that we could have visitors from Japan, or wherever. That’s when this whole idea of building a studio in the garage came about. I spent a lot of time contemplating if this could be done- and once I figured out a few crucial logistical things, I knew I could do it. But it would be the biggest project of my life, to date. So when I took possession of the house on July 3rd, 2019, Taiyo and I didn’t move in right away. I went to work on remodeling the garage into a studio. My plan was to have that done before Yuki returned in late October. The problem was, I had never taken on a project like this before, and had no idea how involved it was. Every step was taking days longer than I expected. Pretty soon, it was clear that I was not going to come close to finishing before Yuki returned, so I had to give in to that idea.
What about Taiyo’s school?
When we moved in with Mom, Taiyo had gone down to #1 on the waitlist for Innovation. So I felt like we should be getting a call any day from the school. He was the next one, right? Well, one day when I checked his position on the list, he had gone up to #2. My heart sank. How? Why? I knew that this school was right for him, and that he would bring so much to this school. But I couldn’t make them take him. I tried not to lose hope- but school would be starting soon.
His number went to #3… Then back to #4. Damn.
As I learned later, this can happen when siblings are involved. So, say a 3rd grader gets in that has a 5th grade sibling, well, this then bumps that 5th grader to the front of the 5th grader line. That’s why Taiyo got bumped down.
The 3rd move:
While I had hoped to have the studio all built before our PODS unit showed up with our stuff, the summer was quickly ending, and I wanted to be settled in the house a bit before the school year began, so I pulled the plug, and had the PODS unit delivered. Thankfully for our friends from MMS, Ellis came and we got that thing unloaded, and into the house in a day! It was a long sweaty day- but we did it! We got moved in, in a very basic way, but we did it.
The 2nd School:
School was about to begin. I had to do something. I looked into the possibility of putting Taiyo in MMS again, but they have a $2,500 retainer if you pull your child out in the middle of the year. That felt a bit excessive, especially while I was trying to build a studio. I had to look into other options. I was between addresses- most of my mail was going to Mom’s house, but I wasn’t on that mortgage, which makes things complicated. Lots of paperwork, etc. Nonetheless, I went to the school by Mom’s house, Prairie Lake Elementary and looked into enrolling Taiyo. I filled out paperwork, and was ready to enroll him, but Yuki wasn’t with me, she was still in Japan. So the woman at the office asked, “where’s his mother?” I said she was in Japan. I was told to get custody papers, which put me on a several day tangent of trying to figure out custody paperwork, not realizing that she was assuming that we were divorced.
At the same time, I was looking into Florida Online School. A state funded public school where the kids attended classes online. After much back-and-forth, I ended up choosing the Online School, not realizing what I was getting into, and partially out of a panic with the school year now starting, and having a child who was truant. Now, having a child in an online school means that the parent has to take on the role of Learning Coach, which is a very involved job. I’m sorry to say that while I was trying to build a studio during the day, and being Taiyo’s Learning Coach at the same time, I didn’t do a very good job as the Learning Coach. That’s a whole other story.
But I will say this: While Taiyo didn’t like his online school, and sitting at home all day, without seeing other kids, he never once complained to me. And the whole time, I knew he didn’t like it, (mainly because when other people would ask, he was honest, and told them that he really didn’t like it), but he never whined, or gave me a hard time. So I am very grateful for that.
The 4th move:
Yuki returned. After living in Tokyo with her mother for the past 7 years, this was a big move for Yuki back to America. I had sure hoped to have the studio done before she got here, but that just didn’t happen (and as of the writing of this in late January 2020, is still under way). What that means for our house is that there’s a whole segment of the house that is taken up by a huge pile of studio stuff. I can’t put it in the studio, because the studio is a construction zone. So Yuki returned to one mess of a house, and Taiyo wasn’t in the right school. He wasn’t doing well in his Online School because I had slacked as a Learning Coach. It was a bit of a rough landing. I had taken on too much.
We got Taiyo through the end of his first semester of online school, and were able to get his grades up. It was rough, but he worked hard on going back and finishing up assignments that had slipped through the cracks (largely due to my lack of involvement).
Meanwhile, I kept a close eye on his number for the IMO waitlist- hoping to see some movement because perhaps people were moving because of the new year, new job? It held firm at #4 for a long time, but finally, his number went down to #3. A few weeks later, it dropped yet again to #2.
Then we sat down and talked. We reconsidered Prairie Lake, the Elementary School by Mom’s house. Yuki, Taiyo and I took a school tour, and afterwards, asked Taiyo, would you like to go to Prairie Lake even if it could possibly be for only a month, or week, or maybe even just a day? Taiyo being the easy-going kid he is, said, “sure.” So we enrolled him.
The 3rd School:
I think Yuki was more nervous about his first day than he was. He did fine (except for a “behavioral issue” on his first day), and was making friends right away.
The very next week, I had scheduled a tour of the IMO campus for Yuki and I. I really wanted to see the new campus, and consequently, his number had moved down to #1 again! So that Tuesday, we took the tour, and were both blown away with the beautiful 18 acre campus which has it’s own nature preserve; how they kept as many of the original trees as possible, the beautiful buildings, and how beautifully the Montessori principles are executed throughout the classrooms, and the entire campus. I could go on and on about this school- but back to the story. It was January 14th, and it was explained to us that this year’s lottery would run until next year’s lottery was drawn, on February 19th. So there was about a month left for Taiyo’s #1 spot to make it in, meaning that a 5th grader would have to leave in order for Taiyo to get in. Talk about tense!!
At the end of the tour I asked about Taiyo’s position, so the registrar offered to take us into her office once everyone else left. She kindly met with us, and saw that Taiyo was #1. She explained that they were currently at capacity, but that should anyone leave, they wanted to make sure that the spot was filled, because the school funding for the next year is determined in February. Yuki mentioned that we had a white polo shirt that we had bought for Taiyo to wear to Prairie Lake, but that they actually didn’t require uniforms, so we were to return it. That’s when the registrar told us, “we’re not done yet. You might want to hang on to that polo.”
The very next day, Yuki and I were over at Mom’s helping her repair her fence in her back yard. We heard my phone ring in the house, and I almost said, “I wonder if that’s Taiyo’s new school calling?” Kind of half joking…. Immediately afterwards, Yuki’s phone rings with a Winter Garden number….
It was the registrar from IMO. She asked Yuki if she still had that polo shirt for Taiyo, because he was in!!!
I think we all cried a bit that day.
Yuki and I walked right over to Prairie Lake, got Taiyo’s withdrawal papers, printed out our enrollment forms and drove straight to Innovation Montessori Ocoee where Taiyo is now a student!
The 4th School:
Taiyo is currently in 5th grade, and will be able to attend IMO through high school. Innovation Montessori High School is one of only 17 Montessori High Schools in the US. The High School portion of the school is currently being built, and if my math is correct, Taiyo will be the 5th graduating class of IMHS.
I haven’t wanted something, and prayed over something as much as this in a long time. I just know it feels right, and it was quite a journey to get here, but it’s all worth it, because I know Taiyo is in the right place.