The first class at May River Montessori in 1987. County Councilman Tabor Vaux is the second boy from the right on the back row, and Margaret Golson Pearman is fourth from the left. PHOTO COURTESY MAY RIVER MONTESSORI

In August 1987, 17 bright-eyed 3- and 4-year-olds walked into a renovated building that would be their new preschool, May River Montessori.

The optimistic beginnings came a year after Bluffton’s May River Academy merged with Sea Pines Academy on the island to become Hilton Head Prep, taking with it the town’s only preschool.

That put parents in a quandary.

“It was time for a decision – what to do? Continue driving to Sea Pines Montessori twice per day?” said Nancy Golson. “Parking lot discussions were taking place every day about where our young children would be the next school year. I think I was first to decide that I would send my kindergartener to M.C. Riley Elementary School, but what to do with (my daughter) Margaret? The only other 3-year-old I can remember was Tabor Vaux.”

Golson and Mary Vaux, Tabor’s mom, put their heads together and started planning a new school. The asked May River Academy for their Montessori materials. After all, said Vaux, the academy was joining an established program. Materials in hand, all they needed was a place to teach.

Tabor’s father, Roberts Vaux, had a small concrete building adjacent to his office in downtown Bluffton. The school could have it rent-free, Golson said, but the only catch was “it needed everything.”

Mary Vaux recalled that renovating the structure to meet current building codes was challenging. Everything was done by volunteers with donated materials and a zero budget.

“There have been thousands of people involved. We never had any money in the bank account and people were paying tuition by the month,” said Golson, whose husband is the owner of Charlie’s L’Etoile Verte on Hilton Head. “I was still a waitress at Charlie’s then and I’d beg people for everything – cabinets, money, sheetrock. The whole thing got done for free – not a penny spent.”

The next task was to find a teacher. Patricia Lakes (Loper), a Montessori-certified teacher from Ohio who had never been in the South, was hired.

“When we hired Patricia, she came, did the interview and said she was going to Europe for the summer,” said Golson. “We were to find her a place to live and some students, so we recruited 15 more people.”

The school opened with those first 17 students and outgrew its “new” building four years later, moving to the former May River Academy’s site on Ulmer Road. As space opened up, more students enrolled. By 1999, the preschool was looking for another new home. And the leadership found just that – a home.

When Bluffton native Jim Jeffcoat was approached about buying his mother’s house on Calhoun Street, his answer was “yes.” “I think my mother (Miss Millie) would like that,” he said.

Within five weeks, parents and trustees raised $20,000 toward closing costs.

There are now 200 students, from 2-year-olds to sixth graders, attending classes in the school’s third building.

Director Sharon Haag came to the school about the time it moved to its present location and has watched the school expand.

“The biggest challenge is controlled growth. You want to keep your program as high a quality as you can with Montessori,” Haag said. “Everybody always wants you to go higher in your grades and you have to be really careful in that, offering the best curriculum and environment that you can and not growing too fast.”

One thing that doesn’t stop is growing children. Amelia Green started in the toddler classes and this year is in first grade. Her mother is impressed with the curriculum.

“What I like best is the academic mentoring. The older students not only serve as good examples showing the younger ones what they can do, but they help the little ones learn,” said Jennifer Green. “And not that she is shy, but the program has also boosted Amelia’s self-confidence.”

Green is not the only one impressed with May River Montessori. At the anniversary celebration Sept. 24, Vaux lauded the efforts of the countless volunteers and community members who supported the school with time and finances.

“I never dreamed that 30 years later we would have 200 children and go up to grade 6,” Vaux said. “I never thought that I would have seven grandchildren as students. Goodness … next year I will have 10 grandchildren in the school. One person we owe so much gratitude to is Sharon and her selection of wonderful staff.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.