MELANIE BURNEY Philadelphia Investigator
When Ellen Fox realized she no longer knew the names of all the students and parents at Delran Montessori Academy, she decided to quit the only job she ever had.
Now Fox, 82, is retiring from the Burlington County School she started with her ex-husband and a small group of parents in 1965. The school has grown from two halls that can seat 15 students to a sprawling 11-acre campus with meadows, nature trails and farm animals.
“I love it here,” Fox said Thursday on the eve of his last day as head of the school. “I’ve had a great life. But it’s time.”
Fox was a young stay-at-home mom with six children when she started meeting other moms in their Willingboro neighborhood in 1963 and decided to form a study group. They discovered the Montessori style of teaching that allows students to select the task they want to focus on and encourages curiosity, and they decided to start a school. A few women dropped out of the group because, as they told Fox, “my husband said no.”
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“Times were different then,” Fox recalled.
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Fox advanced. There was a lot of interest, little money. The group rented these two rooms from Corpus Christi School in Willingboro, plus a bathroom and play area, for $45 a month.
The nonprofit school couldn’t afford its own phone line, so it made do with Fox’s personal phone. For years, Fox took no salary, struggling to pay staff. Her husband at the time, Charles Keith, supported the family with his trucking job. The couple divorced in 1979.
“There was no money to be made,” Fox said. “Everything is back in the school.”
A year later the school moved into the New Covenant Protestant Presbyterian Church in Rancocas Woods and then moved to its current location, initially renting space at the Barns Center in a former farmhouse on Conrow Road in Delran. The barn at the time had already been used for art classes and concerts.
The school purchased the property for $150,000 in 1969. The school has grown over the years from a few classrooms on the first floor of the barn and now has three floors of classrooms, kitchens , greenhouses and gardens. Animals that roam the property are guarded by students.
Today, the private, independent school serves nearly 100 students – toddlers as well as primary and elementary school students. It is the oldest Montessori school accredited by the International Montessori Association of New Jersey.
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“God did it for me,” Fox said. “I can’t pretend I was such a shrewd businesswoman.”
On Thursday, Fox spent time outside the school helping a group of girls plant flowers. A dedicated gardener, she enjoys sprucing up large grounds, riding around on her golf cart picking up limbs and debris.
“It’s a bit sad that she’s retiring,” said second-grade student Aaria Chakrabarti, 8, who enrolled at the school at 18 months. “She’s funny and a nice lady.”
Fox lives on the property in a two-story red-brick Victorian house with two border collies and her daughter, Jennie Keith, 56, who will succeed her as head of the school. The proximity will allow Fox to volunteer and keep in touch with the school. She will also maintain a desk on the second floor with a pillow on her chair that says “It’s good to be queen”.
As she walked into an elementary classroom, Fox was warmly greeted by the students. Teacher Mericke Safka interacted with several students who were studying on the floor. Other students did independent learning or worked on math problems or science fair projects.
“We learn at our own pace,” said Chakrabarti, of Moorestown. “It’s a different way of teaching.”
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Classroom activities reflect the essence of a Montessori education, she said. Montessori emphasizes repetition and the use of concrete objects, such as beads, puzzle pieces, and tools, to teach.
“The idea is that they develop their independence,” Fox said. “They are responsible for their education.”
Fox was never a teacher but trained Montessori as an administrator, traveling to Italy where the Montessori educational method was pioneered by Maria Montessori, a physician, in the 1900s.
“She’s very knowledgeable,” said Safka, 52, a teacher at the school for 20 years. “She’s been wonderful to me.”
Fox, who has been slowing down lately, said she started thinking about retirement after handing over the selection of student applicants to a staff member. This meant that she no longer met parents and prospective students during interviews, and that saddened her.
Her daughter, born 10 days after school opened, is eager to follow in her mother’s footsteps. At work, she calls him “Mrs. Fox”.
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“I call her home mom,” Keith, the youngest of seven, said with a smile.
Fox delivered his final commencement speech on Friday night. The school surprised her with a video tribute, a magnolia tree, a stone garden bench and a serenade of “So Long, Farewell” from The Sound of Music. The main building will be renamed Ellen Fox Hall.
Fox said she was proud of her work for more than five decades. After shoulder surgery next week, she plans to spend more time gardening and enjoying her 19 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
“I couldn’t have sold televisions,” she said. “I needed something I believed in.”