Where once a well-regarded Montessori school fell from grace, a new school – led by a familiar face – will open its doors this September.
Paula Granofsky, formerly the curriculum director and lead teacher at Owl's Head Montessori, is preparing to open Children's House Montessori on the campus of Temple Hillel B'nai Torah, the former site of Owl's Head. Granofsky's operation is independent of Owl's Head, but the school's educational goals and spirit will carry into Children's House, she said. Granofsky will hope, however, to avoid the problems that led to Owl's Head's problems outside of the classroom.
"There will be a new birth here," Granofsky said. "A new school is arising out of the ashes and it's beautiful."
Her optimism is likely welcome among the returning members of the Owl's Head community after seeing their children’s school year fall into jeopardy after the school ceased operations. Parents were forced to scramble to find new schools, complete with new (though in most cases discounted) tuitions, where their children could finish the year.
“The closing caused a great deal of pain,” said one parent, who asked for anonymity. His son had been at the school for two years.
Owl's Head, which had been located at the temple for more than 12 years, closed in February due to director and owner Thomas Hilts's debt to the IRS. According to a Notice of Federal Tax Lien from the IRS prepared on September 8, 2010, Hilts owed the IRS $416,381.62 for payroll tax evasion issues and subsequent fines accumulated during a span of more than two years.
Hilts did not respond to multiple phone calls requesting comment. Montessori Schools of Massachusetts, an umbrella organization for Montessori schools that Owl's Head had been a part of, also refused to comment, with board member Mary Gale suggesting via e-mail that because Owl's Head closed in February, the issue was not worth discussing.
Temple Hillel B'nai Torah officials did not respond to repeated phone calls or a personal visit to the location.
Further, Hilts was unable to pay rent for the final year and a half of Owl's Head's operations, but the temple showed its trust in Granofsky by entering negotiations with her in December for a new lease. The lease has been secured, said Granofsky.
Parents were originally made aware of Hilts’s financial issues as far back as May of last year. They were told repeatedly, however, by both the IRS and the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care that the school year would not be disrupted and that if Hilts were forced out during the year, Granofsky would be able to take over immediately. Licensing issues, however, cut the school year short. For that reason, some parents’ issues are not just with Hilts.
“Thomas Hilts is definitely a villain, a crook, a criminal,” said a parent. “But a lot of us felt that we were let down by the agencies that were there to protect us. …The parents should not have been victimized.”
But Jason Church, who pulled his son from Owl’s Head in December as he began to sense the school’s end may have been nearing, instead places the blame right at Hilts’s feet.
“Owl's Head failed because Hilts failed to pay taxes. A whole lot of taxes over a whole lot of years,” he said. “And he failed to pay rent.”
But, stressed Granofsky, those issues, which she claimed to have no knowledge of prior to their coming to light, had no connection with the educational and developmental experience students were granted inside Owl's Head's walls.
"Our approach was warm, gentle, and loving," she said. "We really did have a well-rounded curriculum.
"As children moved on into kindergarten or first grade, teachers would say our children were respectful, leaders, and self-confident."
The new school, with which Hilts will have no association, will look to continue Owl's Head's Montessori mission, which allows students to learn at their own independent pace with a positive attitude. Granofsky is licensed to work with 39 students at any given time, the license is in place, and despite having watched Owl's Head fall, Granofsky said several parents from the old school have or will enroll at Children's House.
"Ninety-nine percent of the parents are absolutely thrilled that I have the space," she said.
“Paula and the others are great teachers,” echoed Church, who is still considering sending his son to Children’s House. “I don’t think my opinion has changed.”
Now Granofsky will be tasked not only with teaching, but with operating a business and a school, something her predecessor failed to do. She spoke confidently about her ability to do so.
"I am not new to the business," she said. "I understand how children learn."