Know Your Neighbors: Gina Gleason, Executive Director of Alcuin Montessori

As someone in the last few weeks of my first pregnancy, I already know how overwhelming the child care/education space can be. We are certainly lucky to have such wonderful options in the OP/RF/FP area but it definitely takes some ‘study’ and guidance to understand them all! This only makes it even more interesting to talk to someone so respected and ingrained in the education community here – Gina Gleason. Gina is the Executive Director at Alcuin Montessori and is our “neighbor to know” this week. Please read on to get a ton of great information on the Montessori experience in general and Alcuin specifically, as well as get to know Gina herself!

Around Oak Park
Where is home for you? And what brought you there?

Gina Gleason
I live in Oak Park and moved here about 5 years ago from Chicago. I wanted to be closer to Alcuin (where I work) and allow my kids the opportunity to be part of their school and neighborhood community.

AOP
What is Alcuin? What do you do there? How did you get your start?

Gina
Alcuin is Alcuin Montessori School. We are the second oldest Montessori School in the country and have a very long and proud history in the Oak Park community. We were founded in 1961 by six local OP families who were looking for a different way to educate their children. Alcuin is a very special place, with some of the most talented and committed teachers that I’ve ever met, together with a strong sense of community and commitment to Montessori education we can really provide an exceptional experience for the children.

I am the Executive Director at Alcuin. I started at Alcuin in 2003 as an intern in a Primary classroom (3-6-year-olds) and have been there ever since. This is my 7th year leading the school. I was actually working at several graphic design shops in the beginning of my career out of college and learned about Montessori from a good friend. I visited a few schools to see what it was all about since I didn’t have children and hadn’t studied education. I instantly fell in love with the independence that such young children had and the endless learning opportunities and had to learn more myself. I took the training that summer to become a Montessori teacher and the rest is history. I love the fact that Alcuin has so much history and I have the great privilege of carrying on the legacy and dreams that our founders began so long ago.

AOP
Where in Oak Park is Alcuin located?

Gina
Alcuin is located in the heart of Oak Park so we have the opportunity to use the OP Public library and parks on a daily basis, our kids swim at the YMCA as part of our fitness program and our middle school kids use public transportation as part of their “beyond the classroom walls” learning. We are lucky to be so immersed in our community and the children have a lot of opportunities to feel connected outside of the classroom.

AOP
What inspires you most in your work?

Gina
The children (at Alcuin) are definitely are my daily inspiration. We have infants all the way through middle school children at the school, a great age range. It’s incredible when we get to see a child’s first steps or words; the first time they tie their shoe or learn how to do multiplication or read their first book. It’s so great to be a part of that!

Our graduation ceremony at the end of the school year is by far the most touching. The 8th-grade students give speeches and show videos that include a short farewell to the younger students, and the younger students sing and give them gifts. It’s such a strong community and the younger students really look up to the graduates, and hold a very special place in their hearts for them.

Knowing that we have such a positive impact on so many children is very meaningful. The world can be a tough place for both parents and kids but here at Alcuin, we’ve embraced the idea of respect, kindness, and meeting the children where they are in all their areas of development.

AOP
In your opinion, what are the top three things a parent should consider before enrolling their child at a school?

Gina
1. The first and most important thing is to tour the school and see the classrooms. Follow your instincts and first impressions. Can you imagine your child in that classroom?
2. Talk to the teachers and administrators to get a feel for the community, ask a lot of questions and ask to see the credentials of the school.
3. Find out what governing bodies are accrediting the school. The safety and well-being of your child are top priority.

AOP
What is the weirdest thing that has happened to you in your career?
Gina
Weird things don’t always happen. But funny things happen all the time. We had a chicken get out of its coop come into our playground which caused quite a bit of fun and a cat tried to come into the school one day. Maybe we are meant to be part farm, too! Just kidding.

I should write a book about all the “overheard” things that kids say. Strictly anonymous of course because it’s usually very funny things about their parents.

AOP
How would you quickly summarize the Montessori difference?

Gina
Parenting is one of the toughest jobs anyone will ever do, even with the relatively easy kids. We really are looking to partner with parents so that education and parenting really become more cohesive and everyone benefits, but especially the child.

AOP
What are some important and unique aspects of your school community that people may not know about?

Gina
At every level and in every classroom we are focused on peace education, problem solving/conflict resolution and practicing mindfulness. From the youngest toddlers to the oldest middle school student, there are endless opportunities to continue learning and developing these critical skills. It’s completely integrated into the classroom and the children take ownership and as they get older they eventually become, for the most part completely independent in resolving their conflicts.

We also have a very strong commitment to providing opportunities for charitable work or to provide service. This can vary, but we think it’s incredibly important to role model the idea of giving back to our school community, Oak Park community, and the greater world. On the first Friday of every month, we have a parent/child community event at 8 a.m. that focuses on some type of giving back project.

We’ve made hats for preemies, scarves for the homeless, holiday cards for seniors and shut-ins and a recent project called “kindness rocks” where we wrote messages on rocks and put them in and around Oak Park and the city. We do a variety of projects with Housing Forward, from blanket drives to making the lunches for the shelter guests on Thursday nights. Our middle school students volunteer at local places in Oak Park on a regular basis for the school year. Within our school community, the older students have programs for volunteering in the classrooms of the younger students so that they are helping with reading, editing or assisting the toddlers with snack and recess time. There are so many opportunities for all of the children and such a great life lesson.

AOP
What do you feel is the highlight of Alcuin’s program?

Gina
Our Middle School is definitely a shining star in our school program. It’s a perfect mix of preparation for high school, experienced-based learning, respect and nurturing of the young adolescent child, travel and more travel, independent learning and a huge amount of parent support. Junior High can be a really tough time for most kids and parents but at Alcuin, the experience is so meaningful and for many the highlight of their education.

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AOP
And now for a few questions about YOU outside of work! When you’re not at Alcuin, where can we find you?

Gina
When I am not working I am spending the very early morning hours running with my friends. It’s the best way to start my day. Other than that I spend time with my two kids and friends exploring the city or finding a forest preserve or park to spend so we can spend as much time in nature as we possible. My kids are still young but I am finding myself at the Ridgeland Ice Rink quite a bit!

AOP
If you were magically given three more hours per day, what would you do with them?

Gina
Well, since it’s just magic I would cook, eat and read, in that order but the reality is I would probably just work more!

AOP
What does a typical day look like for you?

Gina
There is never a typical day, and that is one of the best parts about this job. Every day, every moment is something different, and it never quite goes the way you had planned. When you are dealing with kids, it’s always best to approach everything with a sense of calm and a lot of humor. I might be in the classroom helping the toddlers one moment or with middle school kids, or working on a budget the next, meeting with a parent and then back to a classroom. There’s never a dull moment. My job is all about helping the children, teachers, and parents first and then later after everyone is gone for the day I can work on the business side of running a school.

AOP
What is the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?

Gina
I check the weather and open my email.


To connect with Gina and find out more about Alcuin Montessori, visit:
Gina Gleason
Email: ggleason@alcuin.org
Phone: 708.366.1882

About

Kelli is a contributor for Around Media Group. She also (intermittently) writes about the restoration of her 100 year old Oak Park house (and other stuff) at downwithop.com. In her ‘real life’ she works as a Marketing Research Director. And in her free time she loves hanging out with her husband/friends/family, wine, comedy, design, biking, organizing, traveling, meeting new people, taking classes and exploring OP/RF/FP – not necessarily in that order.

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