Bethany school dedicated in part to owner’s late son
BETHANY >> Rhonda Bielik fell in love with the Montessori approach to education some 26 years ago when her late son, Nicholas, was born, and now with a 4-year-old son in tow at age 52, she’s taken it to the next level.
Bielik, a Beacon Falls resident and wife of the town’s first selectman, Christopher Bielik, began Willow Tree Montessori in her home in 2013, and recently opened a space at 171 Amity Road for children ages 2 years, 9 months to 5 years old. Although it’s on the main drag, the school is set back on a park-like lot full of trees.
“Everyone who’s here wants to be here. It’s a really special school,” Bielik she said. “I love it.”
Bielik, who has 20 years of experience in the Montessori approach, earned her teaching credentials through the Association Montessori Internationale.
Willow Tree is one of only eight schools in Connecticut that has full accreditation by the association.
The Montessori method of education, developed by Dr. Maria Montessori, is an individualized, child-driven approach to learning and development that uses a created environment in which children discover their unique relationship to the world.
The Montessori approach aims to help children develop independence, self-discipline and self-teaching abilities.
MEMORY OF SON
Willow Tree is in part a tribute to Nicholas, a partly Montessori-educated youngster, who was killed by a drunken driver in 2008 near the Rutgers University campus as he walked back from the student center. It was just before the start of his sophomore year.
She named it Willow Tree because Nicholas, a nature lover from the time he was preschool age, loved to sit on a rock, sing, talk and look at the willow tree across the street when they lived in Plymouth, Mass. Through the years as they traveled the country as a military family, they always looked for willow trees.
“At 3 years, his old soul was wise and beautiful, and free,” she said.
On a more adult level, she said, the willow is a strong tree with deep roots.
“It’s a tribute to Nicholas, but it’s also a tribute to childhood,” she said. “If every person can live their lifestyle doing what they want to do is all we hope for.”
Terri Williams, a mathematics professor whose son E.J., 4, is a student at Willow Tree, said the No. 1thing she likes is that he “absolutely loves going to school.”
Williams said when she and her husband visited the school, they were blown away by Bielik’s “keen insights” into E.J.’s strengths and potential soon after meeting him.
“She’s very talented working with early childhood education,” Williams said.
Parent Karey Maxwell said the first time visiting Willow Tree she wanted to go back in time “to this surreal environment filled with enchanting children, caring for one another and themselves, making fresh bread, or washing dishes in a mini-lifelike environment fit just for them.”
“I often give the credit to Mrs. Bielik because she loves our children like they are one of her own,” Maxwell said. “She is able to extract the best from our children, but she gently insists, it is instead the environment and the children themselves responsible for this beautiful majestic growth and independent learning.”
Bielik was researching approaches to education and parenting years ago while pregnant with Nicholas and came across Montessori’s “The Absorbent Mind,” read it, and fell in love with the approach. Nicholas soared.
When the tragedy struck, she and her husband, heartbroken over the loss of their only child, waited a few years then decided to have another child. Through in-vitro fertilization, she became pregnant and gave birth at age 48. Aleksander was born in 2012.
Knowing she wanted Aleksander to experience the Montessori approach, it became Bielik’s dream to open her own environment. Aleksander is one of her students.
“We have a specially prepared environment that takes all the qualities of the world and based on that unique human person,” she said. “It’s a way of explaining life.”
After traveling the nation because of Christopher Bielik’s military career, the family settled here in 2004 after his retirement and made a home in Beacon Falls. They always knew they would settle in this area, she said, because her husband grew up in Orange and wanted to be close to family.
Nicholas graduated from Woodwind High School in Beacon Falls, going on to Rutgers University in New Jersey. Bielik said her late son was independent and “just really a wonderful person.”
His second year at college, Nicholas decided to rent a “big house filled with guys,” rather than live in the dorm, she said. They last saw Nicholas at the end of August, on a Sunday, “a beautiful day,” while they helped him move in and set up.
They said their good-byes as usual with a group hug and Nicholas said, “One more hug. I love you guys.” That was the last time they would hug or talk.
Children at Willow Tree Montessori enter “the heart” of their “Casa dei Bambini” as the school is referred to in Montessori culture — a room filled with musical instruments, cultural elements, a science area and more.
“This is where they prepare themselves,” Bielik said.
There is a huge, spotless and orderly main room. “Everything here is set up to represent the world,” she said.
If the children spill something, everything is available to clean up. There is a calm, a serenity, a quiet in the room, even though many young children are busy at individual stations.
“Willow Tree Montessori is not only a tribute to my son Nicholas for guiding me to my life’s purpose, but it is my small contribution to humanity through my work with the child,” according to Bielik.
For more information, visit wtmontessori.com.