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OFS, The First 30 Years

In January of 1988, I informed my mentor and boss Tim Seldin, who was the headmaster of Barrie School in Silver Spring, Maryland, that I would be leaving my teaching position at the end of that school year. I informed him of my vision to open a new school of my own the following autumn. Tim gave me my start as a Montessori educator, so it was an emotional meeting. Even though I was still a very young teacher (and looked still a bit like a high school student myself), and even though Tim must have wondered how I could possibly achieve such an undertaking in such a short amount of time, he expressed his confidence in me and encouraged me to follow my dreams. He also told me he would always be there for me, and indeed he always has been.

In the spring and summer of 1988, I began spending time in reflection, thinking deeply about the vision of the school I wanted to open. What would make it unique? What would be the core elements? What should it look like and fee like? I got into a flow of inspiration and started writing the original prospectus of the school, which outlined the vision of the school program in terms of three main components – Academy, Self-Discovery, and Manifestation. Academy and Self-Discovery referred to the “outer” and “inner” aspects of education, which I envisioned to have equal weight, while Manifestation referred to the outgrowth of the first two – when students would step out into o the world and share what they had learned in Academy and what they had gained in Self-Discovery.

Also in the summer of 1988, we worked feverishly to complete the application to the State of Maryland to get approval to officially open the school. My friend Linda Sloan helped immeasurably during this period preparing the many curriculum policy/procedure documents – a considerable task. My mother Helen made a significant loan to help launch the school, but it wasn’t enough to meet the state’s requirements. To help, my friend Barbara Falk provided additional funding and the school secured official permission from the State of Maryland to open its doors.

It was difficult to find a suitable location for the school that would meet state and county requirements. Time was running short in the summer of 1988 and finally we found a former public school. We decided to rent the library of that building and put our whole school into that space. We were so excited when we signed the lease, but then there was a huge glitch. The space was filled to the ceiling with old AV equipment, and the person in charge refused to move it. I had to call the assistant superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools for help. It was a happy day to see all the equipment being moved out into truck!

In September 1988, the school opened its doors. We had about ten students and two teachers including myself, along with a part-time art teacher and a parent volunteer, Ron Brooks, who answered phones, ran errands, and helped drive on field trips. On September 21, my meditation teacher came to the school to offer his blessings and help us celebrate our opening. We were off and running, and of course I could never have foreseen how the school would grow and the paths it would take.

In the summer of 1989 we had to vacate the original location. We were in quite a panic to find a new space that would work for us, but we were incredibly fortunate to connect with John Symons from St. John’s Episcopal Church. Thanks to his support and that of others at St. John’s we were able to secure a lease to share their educational wing. Originally, we only rented two classrooms on the first floor and then we expanded downstairs and later upstairs.

In 1989 we celebrated our first official United Nations Day, and in 2001, Swedish Ambassador Jan Eliasson came as the first ambassador to visit the school. We started to become known as an international school and began to use the word “international in our name. The Festival of Lights, also started in 1989, became a yearly tradition.  In the beginning, the whole school would make individual menorahs that we would light during the Festival (until there were too many and it got a bit too hot with all the flames burning). The Festival of Lights began to take on new forms, with a different program each year focused more broadly on traditions from around the world. During this period, we also developed our tradition of visiting different houses of worship as part of our study of world cultures, which is something alumni students still talk about to this day.

Over the years, OFS became known as a place that taught peace and celebrated cultural, religious, and racial harmony. As a result of this we started to attract the attention of some prominent individuals who were passionate about similar things. My friend Lewis Randa, founder of the Life Experience School, gave me the idea of creating an award that we could present to special guests when they came. The world Oneness-Heart Award was established. We have been fortunate to have been visited by two many great individuals over the years, including Jan Eliasson, Muhammad Ali, Graham Nash, Riane Eisler, Wyclef Jean, Congressman Tim Ryan, Lynne Twist, Christine Carter, and Congressman Elijah Cummings. Each, in their own unique way, sowed seeds of inspiration that will live with us forever.

In the early years of the school we had two vans and would take trips throughout the DC area. WE took our first overnight trip to the George Washington National Forest; later we embarked on our first out-or-state sojourn to Massachusetts and New Hampshire, where we camped at my Uncle Joe’s farm and visited a sister Montessori school. In those days, I still did a bit of everything, so I was the primary driver on the trips, including the multi-day trips. In later years our overnight trips evolved and expanded, including stays at Echo Hill School on the Eastern Shore. Older student trips became more ambitions and included destinations such as Puerto Rico, Utah, London, New York, and Philadelphia.

In the 2000s our theater program became a huge element of the school’s program, with each year’s production taking on larger proportions. This was due largely to the amazing talent and dedication of Zoe Handerson. Eventually we had to rent local theaters to deliver the full scope of the productions in a professional way. At some point, we had to pause and evaluate where we wanted to go with the program, as it required a great dal of resources. I am so happy that theater has retuned as a key tradition at OFS.

In 2007, Stefania Rubino launched our program for two-year-old children, and we called it Little Stars. According to Stefania, the name came from the idea that all children hold great light and brightness – even when little.

In 2010, we lost my mother Helen, who passed away at the age of 90. She was the first supporter of OFS and a constant source of encouragement and steadfast commitment. Then in 2012, my big sister Phyllis died of cancer. She, along with her husband, Loren, were major supporters of OFS over the years. Phyllis was my rock since I was a young child, always encouraging me and giving me strength when times were tough and when I doubted myself. Losing my mother and sister in such a short span was a huge blow to me, as well as to OFS, and yet we soldiered on with their spirits as our living inspiration and guiding force.

Over the years Oneness-Family School became a leader in Montessori education. I served as secretary of the board of the International Montessori Council, helped found the Montessori Peace Academy, and began speaking nationally and internationally. In 2016 OFS was voted Best Montessori School in the DC region by Family Magazine; it was the first of four years in a row the school received that distinction. In the fall of 2017, OFS launched its high school in Kensington, Maryland, leasing space from Grace Episcopal Day School, and becoming the first Montessori high school in the Mid-Atlantic region.

- Andrew Kutt

Tuesday, July 2, 2019