HOLLIDAYSBURG - Penn-Mont Academy has come a long way since it opened as Wolf Academy in September 1961 in the Union Avenue home of Gerald and Aline Wolf.
Seeking a "better way" for their children to learn, the Wolfs brought a Montessori teacher - Frances Sweatman - to the area from England.
"When our older children had started in traditional Altoona schools, both public and parochial, we were disappointed in what was offered to them, especially in the way they were learning to read and write," the Wolfs wrote in an email. "Long after they could read billboards and cereal boxes, they were still reading 'Look, look, oh look' in their classrooms. Their writing consisted of circling words or filling in blanks in workbooks that never invited them to write a complete sentence. We felt that our children as well as other youngsters in Altoona deserved a better start in their education."
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Preschool teacher Kristi Negola works with Jay Stultz as they use long red rods in an exercise at Penn-Mont Academy on Holliday Hills Drive, Hollidaysburg. The academy is marking its 50th anniversary.
Based on the work of Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori, the Montessori method of education provides a framework for teaching curriculum and promotes a life-long love of learning through the joy of exploration.
"We recognize the individual differences in children," said Mary Zajac, head of Penn-Mont since 2010. She previously served 20 years as education coordinator at the school.
"We use a hands-on approach to learning. We use age grouping. We have more than one grade in a classroom," said Michelle Hartye, head of school from 1987 to 2010 and current director of Penn-Mont's satellite preschool and kindergarten program at Penn State Altoona. "There is individuality; each child has their own course of work and study and moves through it at their own pace."
Ed Henderson of Altoona was a member of the first class in the Wolf home.
"I had first grade in the Wolf sunporch on Union Avenue. There were three other people in the class," Henderson said. "It was like a one-room schoolhouse."
Henderson later served on the school's board of directors when his son Daniel - now a freshman at Harvard - was a student at Penn-Mont.
"It helped broaden his outlook on education. It allowed him to develop his own unique personality skills and interests. The education they provide is based on their individual talents and abilities; it is a nurturing environment," said Henderson, who also had two stepdaughters attend Penn-Mont.
The school moved from the Wolf home to a church at Sixth Avenue and 28th Street in 1962 and was renamed Penn-Mont Academy.
It remained there until 1984 when the school moved to Lotz Avenue in Lakemont.
In 2001, the academy moved to a new 310,000-square-foot facility with 14 classrooms on Holliday Hills Drive.
Penn-Mont has grown from 30 students in 1961 to about 240 today, with an additional 22 at the Penn State Altoona location, which opened last year.
Hartye said there were growth spurts between 1984-85 and 2009-10.
"There was a steady growth in enrollment because we added the toddler program. Programs were added, and it was more consistently managed. A high percentage of parents decided to keep their kids in the program," Hartye said.
"Our toddler program has seen the most growth over the last two or three years," Zajac said. "They [parents] are looking for quality education for their children - not just a day care program. It is an educational program."
Parents have embraced the Montessori education.
"I think Montessori education has a tradition of giving broader basic skills and academics. It is a very natural way for them to learn. It gives them basic skills in terms of academics. We start teaching basic skills at 2 or 3, such as alphabet sounds and learning to count. We integrate learning into play. They don't even know they are learning," Hartye said. "All academic work is integrated into an environment that gives children a sense of joy and play and the outcome is that they have learned."
Penn-Mont, which has 45 full- and part-time employees, including 22 full- and part-time educators, is open from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. weekdays year-round.
Zajac said there are enrichment opportunities for students, including after-school programs such as fencing and chess and field trips to colonial Williamsburg, Washington, D.C., and New York City.
"The extended field trips are tied in to what they are studying," Zajac said.
Penn-Mont was the first Montessori school in Pennsylvania and the third in the nation. The school became affiliated with the American Montessori Society in 1988.
Hartye said that affiliation gave the teachers added certification, which helped the program grow.
"We have stayed connected nationally to the Montessori organization. We can look across the country, look at schools from New York to San Francisco. We are networking with a lot of Montessori schools and look at curriculum across the nation," Hartye said. "It is an international organization and we are very connected to it. That has helped keep the standard high."
The academy draws students from Blair, Bedford, Cambria and Centre counties.
Tuition for the elementary program is about $5,000 a year. About 20 percent of the families whose children attend the school receive scholarship money, Zajac said.
Zajac is optimistic about the future of the school.
"We will continue to be responsive to the community and the needs of our families. That is why we expanded to have a year-round program to provide good consistent care for children," Zajac said. "We have a research-based tested and true method that has been effective and have a highly qualified staff to develop it. We have teachers with masters degrees working with 3-year-olds."
The Wolfs said they are surprised how the school has grown.
"We never dreamed that this humble beginning would evolve into a thriving school that would ultimately serve thousands of students. We feel especially grateful to that first group of parents who trusted us with their children's education," the Wolfs wrote. "Yes, we founded Penn-Mont, but its success that was recognized on our 50th anniversary is due, not to us, but to the wonderful work of our dedicated teachers and to the leadership of Michelle Hartye. We are very proud of all they have done."
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.