Guide leaves Mountaineer Montessori

By Amber Marra
Bob Wojcieszak
Mary McKown, 70, is leaving the Mountaineer Montessori School after 35 years of service. The colorful sign designed by local artist Charles "Jupiter" Hamilton was unveiled in her honor at an open house.
After spending 35 years teaching what she calls "a way of life," Mary McKown is leaving her post at Mountaineer Montessori School.McKown, 70, is the lead guide for advanced elementary students at the school. Like other Montessori instructors, McKown prefers the term "guide" to "teacher" because of the independent, child-centered nature of the Montessori learning model.The seasoned Montessori guide will start at her new job as head of school at Pinewood Montessori School in Hillsborough, N.C."It's just so different from traditional education. It is a way of life, it sounds esoteric, but it's that focus on the total child, physical, emotional as well as the intellectual and academic," McKown said.The concept of independent learning with a focus on freedom with some limitations, Montessori school was appealing to McKown from the start.After attending West Virginia University for her undergraduate degree in home economics and getting a master's degree with a concentration in clothing and textiles from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, McKown started at the Association Montessori International in 1971. She then moved on to what is now the American Montessori Society in San Diego, Calif.After her daughter finished up at Montessori school in northern Virginia, McKown moved to Charleston and started at the school in 1976. Mountaineer Montessori was a parent cooperative at the time, and McKown took it over as her own business in the early 1980s. It has since become a 501c3, and McKown acted as director at one point.Though she is now the lead guide for all of the advanced elementary students, she has taught at the primary and junior elementary levels."I just love the curriculum because it's open-ended and the children are very involved in their education, and it involves the parents, the child, the teachers. So we're all involved in helping the children love to learn," McKown said.
Over the years, McKown has seen her students come back to visit the school after succeeding as doctors, lawyers and scientists."And that for me is just remarkable," she said.An unfortunate development during McKown's tenure was the cancellation of Mountaineer Montessori's junior high program.The program operated for about five years at the start of the decade but was discontinued because of the number of parents choosing to send their children to traditional middle schools.McKown would have liked to see the program continue up to the high school level but pointed out that children who have experienced the alternative education format adapt easily to the social and academic environment of traditional schools.
Julie Margolis, the first-year co-director of Mountaineer Montessori, was preparing for an open house Wednesday evening that featured a sign for the school designed by local artist Charles Jupiter Hamilton.The unveiling of the sign's tall, colorful lettering was in honor of McKown and her years at the school."I'm really sorry she's leaving. We've worked together for many, many years, and she's a resource of energy, ideas, innovation, and creativity, so we'll miss her dearly. We do intend to keep saying she's only a phone call away and hopefully collaborate in the future," Margolis said.McKown starts her new job June 7. The move will bring her closer to her daughter and grandchildren, who live in Chapel Hill, N.C."It has been an unbelievable experience, and it's going to be very difficult for me to leave this time in my life. I look forward to moving on and leaving (the school) with excellent leadership and excellent staff," McKown said.Contact writer Amber Marra at or 304-348-4843.
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