Looking back, no one could have predicted what Five Oaks Academy, a Montessori School opened in the fall of 2003 on a quiet road in Simpsonville, SC, would become. Not its founder and owner, Laura Baur. Not its founding Executive Director, Kathleen Trewhella-Grant. And certainly not the five teachers and a couple of dozen parents who sent their 37 young children to the big white farmhouse, the welcoming centerpiece of what would become an 11-acre indoor/outdoor campus.
Fast forward to 2023 and Five Oaks Academy is an award-winning, deeply innovative Montessori school serving 250 students from toddlers to eighth graders. With its motto of “Minds Opened Here,” its razor sharp focus on continuous improvement, and its ongoing commitment to serving both its internal and external communities, Five Oaks has been recognized as a leader even beyond the Montessori world.
Proof of that came in November 2020 when Five Oaks was recognized by the nearly 60-year-old South Carolina Independent School Association (SCISA) with its prestigious W. Keller Kissam School of Honor Award. Representing more than 120 independent schools in South Carolina, SCISA recognized Five Oaks for its “cutting edge” interactive academic programs, its commitment to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) education initiatives and its overall focus on parental involvement and community centered outreach education.
“When you look at the caliber of schools that were nominated, and to be recognized not by a Montessori organization, but by an independent school organization recognizing best practices no matter what pedagogy you’re using, and to say that yes, your community is happy and thriving and yes your children are learning…well that was a very big moment,” says Trewhella-Grant of the award.
Five Oaks Academy received its initial accreditation from SCISA in 2017, also becoming that same year the first South Carolina Montessori school to receive SCISA’s dual accreditation in Montessori and STEAM.
Up and Running in Less Than a Year
So how did Five Oaks go from start-up to state-wide award winner? Enter Baur, a previously successful entrepreneur with no educational or Montessori experience at the time, but a determined mother driven to find a better educational option for her and her husband’s two young sons – even if she had to build it herself.
“Overconfidence can be a wonderful thing,” says Baur with a laugh as she reminisces on how she got a Montessori school up and running in less than a year.
She recalls that 2002 was somewhat of a perfect personal storm in that she had sold her business and was at home with her two boys, the oldest of whom would be starting first grade the next year. She wasn’t thrilled with the choices. And in the back of her mind she also was thinking that she was happiest when working.
After having her son Ben tested for consideration at a private school and being told he would be “fine” in the first grade but as a typical energetic boy probably wouldn’t love it, she started asking questions about Montessori and was told it was considered the best way to learn. That was all she needed to hear and she enrolled him in a Montessori school in Spartanburg. (Today, scientific studies of how the brain learns support Dr. Maria Montessori’s findings and approach.)
But as fate would have it, one day on the way home from church Baur spotted the ‘for sale’ sign for the property on Jonesville Road known as Five Oaks Farm. And she never looked back.
In record-setting speed, Baur walked and fell in love with the property and bought it; worked with neighbors, some of whom were unsure about having a school in their midst; and hired Trewhella-Grant, initially as a consultant. She also had to recruit parents to entrust their children to the brand new entity, which was a bit of a muddy construction zone as new classroom and outdoor areas were being built. (Ironically, those outdoor extensions of the school would prove a particular godsend almost 20 years later when they were a big part of why Five Oaks never closed its doors during Covid.)
“I had the good sense to find my team and hire Kathleen, who moved from consultant to founding Executive Director. I learned how little I knew about Montessori, but she was able to bring talented educators with her and I knew we could hit the ground running,” says Baur.
On the Fast Track
What made Five Oaks unique from the start, says Trewhella-Grant, was that Baur had passion and a clear vision, and she chose to start primary and lower elementary classes at the same time, which was not the norm. Typically a Montessorri school might add one grade level at a time.
“Our business model was ‘build it, and they will come.’ So we had 600% enrollment growth in the first 10 years and 30% in the second. And from a business model perspective, that’s astounding to me,” says Trewhella-Grant.
Following that trajectory, Five Oaks opened a middle school in year five with less than 10 students. And then a year or so later opened a toddler program, meaning the school could serve two-year-olds to eighth graders. That was a rare thing for any school in the state of South Carolina.
Baur never initially envisioned a middle school, but later felt that the school’s job was not finished at the transition to sixth grade. “There are so many uncertainties and changes for young people in that age group. And studies report that by the eighth grade a child has decided if he or she is good in school or not. Obviously, if a student decides the latter, it will impact so many decisions; it’s such a critical crossroads,” she says.
Trewhella-Grant, a native South Carolinian, agrees and has found the growth stimulating. The Executive Director started her Montessori training in London (finishing in the United States), and worked as both a Montessori teacher and director before coming to Five Oaks. She says in the beginning she was drawn to the school because she saw so much potential in the environment, and it also was very appealing to partner with someone like Baur, “who was and is so dedicated and forward thinking about education.”
Moreover, adds Trewhella-Grant, “Laura was open to creative ideas in the running of the school and to evaluating ourselves on an ongoing basis, which led us to add so many programs over the years and made us progressive in areas including the arts, sciences, music, leadership, and the cultivating strengths movement.”
Guest Artists and Programs and Festivals Oh My!
Indeed, it’s hard to think about Five Oaks Academy without envisioning all the special activities that take place on its campus. Its peaceful environment, which features multiple and varied outdoor class areas and green spaces, including a lush nature trail, carefully cultivated flower and vegetable gardens, a labyrinth, an art mural and even a chicken coop, is the perfect backdrop for a special program or event.
Through the years students have looked forward to Fall Festivals, International Festivals (morphing into a World’s Fair this year), and International Day of Peace celebrations. Other traditions include Holiday Peace Performances, the Annual Student Art Show, Spirit Week, Strengths Shows (where students showcase their strengths and practice their public speaking skills in front of their peers), and STEAM Shows.
Students also routinely take their strengths on the road, participating in statewide spelling bees, music festivals, book battles and robotic competitions. Field trips are favorites too, with eighth graders planning a special days-long getaway before graduation each year.
Another highly anticipated tradition is the Guest-Artist-in-Residence Program. And no artist’s visit drew more excitement for the campus than South Carolina’s own internationally-renowned Jonathan Green, who is considered one of the most important contemporary painters of the Southern experience and whose critically acclaimed works have been showcased in museum collections and exhibitions throughout the world.
Five Oaks’ Assistant Director Jill Plumley, who started at the school in its first year as a teacher and moved into leading the art program full time in 2006, and then into administration roles starting in 2012, remembers the thrill of Green’s 2009 visit well.
“Green’s visit was a huge, huge deal,” says Plumley, who also is Directress of the Art History Program, “and it tied in so perfectly with our art history program. Now when we teach about his works, I tell the students, ‘This artist is a bit different. Not only is he still alive, but he’s from South Carolina.’ And the students gasp.
And then I say, ‘and he came to our school!’ And the students gasp even louder and about fall off their seats when I tell them he brought his paintings to Five Oaks for us to touch and pass around as he discussed his process.”
Other special events have tied into student giving projects. None stands out more prominently than the Tutudesk Campaign, a charity that aims to address the shortage of more than 90 million desks in sub-Saharan Africa. In November 2018, Thandi Tutu-Gxashe, the daughter of Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s highly influential leader of the anti-apartheid movement and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, visited Five Oaks to speak to Upper Elementary and Middle School students about the campaign’s goal at that time to provide 20 million portable Tutudesks to 20 million students by 2020.
Five Oaks’ students at all levels embraced the mission and that fall raised several thousand dollars through lemonade and bake sales, special parking passes for school events, and other creative efforts. Today, Five Oaks’ students continue to support a variety of charities, including Wells of Love, which provides clean water wells to communities in Africa to improve nutrition and help prevent disease associated with contaminated water supplies. In the case of Wells of Love, the Lower Elementary students have raised more than $60,ooo.
Community Ties That Bind
Another original and purposeful goal at Fives Oaks from the start was to draw students and families representing the international community. Events such as the International Festival supported that goal, and corporate nods from firms such as BMW also enhanced its reputation. BMW recognizes Five Oaks as a partner school that has been vetted by its relocation teams; this is especially important to its employees coming from Germany, where Montessori is extremely prevalent.
Today, more than 38 countries are represented at Five Oaks through families and faculty.
Trewhella-Grant explains that yet another aspect of the original mission was to be a community leader for education.
“Montessori role models lifelong learning and we wanted to offer that to the public without charge. For example, we did an educational series at the public library on ADHD with Dr. Caitlin McLear. Those types of programs have set Five Oaks apart for modeling adult learning.”
Five Oaks has sponsored many distinguished speakers for the community at large, including, among others:
- Dr. Yong Zhao, distinguished professor and author focused on the implications of globalization and technology for education;
- Dr. Derrick Gay, a renowned diversity and inclusion strategist and consultant;
- Dr. Paul Epstein, international speaker, author and Montessori educational consultant; and
- Dr. Jane Bluestein, award-winning author, speaker and expert on parent-child communication.
While such aforementioned programs have been complimentary to the public, their sponsorship of course requires funding. And so, with no income beyond tuition, but wanting to strive for the ability to both be self-sustaining and an organization that would deliver program, faculty and staff excellence, in 2008 Five Oaks established its Annual Fund.
The Annual Fund, thanks to the overwhelming support of parents, faculty, staff, businesses and others, has raised more than $1.75 million since its inception. The money has helpedFive Oaks send teachers and staff to educational conferences and funded the completion of Montessori certifications and in some cases Masters’ degrees. It’s also provided student scholarships and made innumerable campus and community events possible.
Teachers Make the School Go Round
As Baur reflects on two decades of success, she’s quick to admit that while she had the vision and drive to create the school, Trewhella-Grant is “what made the difference.”
Kathleen has an eye for excellence and such high standards and expectations. She taught me that Montessori teachers have to be extraordinary and be happily balanced themselves. She attracts the best people from all over; and let’s face it: no matter how lovely the environment is, it’s all about the faculty.”
“We’ve always focused first on recruiting the best candidate, regardless of Montessori or teaching certification background,” notes Trewhella-Grant. “We look for somewhat of a Renaissance person with many skills … we look for problem solvers, collaborative community leaders, an enthusiasm and joy for children. We want them to be passionate about education and individual student growth. It’s not an easy job so you really have to enjoy it.”
Trewhella-Grant and Baur both agree that creating leadership opportunities for their teachers is key.
“We developed a Curriculum Council and governing bodies that would help us grow and be consistent in delivering the educational models that we promised,” says Trewhella-Grant. “It would be one thing if you just had one classroom and one teacher at each level, but when you start duplicating models and you want that consistency, you’re not just depending on a few good teachers.”
Also of paramount importance is exposing teachers to innovative thinking on learning. For example, Trewhella-Grant has been a member of Learning in the Brain (a members only organization for educators and scientists dedicated to studying how the brain learns) for more than 25 years and has used its resources and conferences to strengthen her team.
Faculty members also have attended SCISA conferences and events of the South Carolina Montessori Alliance, of which Trewhella-Grant is an inaugural Board of Directors member.
Through the years teachers also have been encouraged to bring their own projects to campus with them, such as building a stone oven pizza or putting up a zipline. As another example, Five Oaks’ Comfort and Therapy Dog program got its start and is supported by faculty members who bring their own dogs to school. And new in 2023 is a cooking project for first through third graders made possible via a private grant that will eventually grow to include other age students.
The Road Ahead
Indeed, there’s much to celebrate in Five Oaks Academy’s first 20 years and much more about which to look forward. A number of special events have already happened, some of which will be held annually.
Baur is always thinking about improvements for the school, and has considered expansion, but no type of expansion would include adding high school grades.
“There is a sweet spot of how big you can be before you lose the feeling of what you have created,” emphasizes Baur. “I don’t want to lose that.”
But it’s not unusual to see high school students on campus. In fact, Baur says her favorite event of the year is the Middle School Alumni Workshop, when former students come back to discuss their high school experiences with current students.
“A dream of mine has been to see that first group of students head off to high school and then hear feedback of how prepared they are. And we do get excellent feedback from principals and admission directors on how well prepared our students are. It makes me super happy,” says Baur.
Trewhella-Grant concurs, adding: “From a philosophical standpoint we want them to go into high school being confident in themselves and their decision making skills, and to have skills to study well and meet people well … If Montesorri’s goal is to prepare you for life, then the next obvious step is to have a larger pool in high school where they can practice their skills.”
Internships play an important role in this preparation; students have opportunities to be mentored both on and off campus in a variety of fields and get to practice interview skills, job etiquette and so much more.
“It can be very interesting for our students,” says Trewhella-Grant. “We had a young lady who thought she wanted to be a veterinarian. But she fainted while watching a procedure, and ultimately decided on a different direction.”
While all of the staff at Five Oaks can take pride in the ongoing achievements of current and former students, Baur is especially excited about a future student coming to Five Oaks. As it turns out, her son Will and daughter-in-law are expecting a baby and are moving north to be closer to the child’s maternal grandmother. “But the good news, Mom,” Will Baur told his mother, “is we’re moving back in time for our child to start at Five Oaks.”
That, without a doubt, is one thing Laura Baur could never have imagined in 2002.
Shaping Citizens of the World
When you talk to teachers and others at Five Oaks Academy who interact with the students, you hear familiar refrains about the joys of teaching, the highs of witnessing a child truly learn and the rewards of shaping well-rounded and well-intended individuals.
Jennifer Amick, who has been with Five Oaks from the start and serves as Lead Primary Program Directress, says the school is unique because it isn’t only focused on the child’s academic ability.
“We also concentrate on real-life skills, such as teaching children to sit with those sitting alone, and to think about others. Skills such as being kind, befriending those who are lonely, giving encouragement, and seeing the good in others are modeled at the youngest level. To me, this is how you change the world – not by focusing solely on someone’s academic strengths, but by focusing on the skills it takes to be a good citizen of the world.”
Echoing those sentiments is Bonnie Benthall, a 16-year Five Oaks veteran who is currently Lead Lower Elementary Program Directress and says she is lucky to call Five Oaks Academy home.
“I am proud to be a part of such an amazing school that values kindness, individuality, respect, innovation, and passion for knowledge. It has been so rewarding to work in an environment that is not only beautiful but also dedicated to collaborative teaching and learning to support the whole child.”
Assistant Director Jill Plumley finds reward in seeing the pride on a child’s face when he or she is exposed to how art is taught at Five Oaks, especially after believing they weren’t artistic.
“They tend to think they can’t do art. But I always say ‘We teach art a little bit differently here and I think you’re going to be surprised.’”
Plumley also cherishes eighth grade graduation day. “We have parents cry and say we’ll never have what we had here and thank you so much for what you’ve done for our child and our family. We have worked together to grow that child and it’s so rewarding. And we have the privilege of seeing a child who might have started out so shy, and by middle school they are leaders in our community. To see that metamorphosis is wonderful.”
For founder Laura Baur, she takes joy in hearing that a child who wasn’t reading well progresses to reading all the time, even in the bathtub. Or seeing a child coming onto the school’s campus and immediately skipping down the sidewalk. Or visiting with a former student who is thriving in high school and beyond.
Combined with all the other highs she’s experienced at Five Oaks, Baur says she feels “embarrassingly rewarded.”
Milestones To Grow On at Five Oaks Academy
- 2003 School Founded.
- 2003-2013 Enrollment grows 600%.
- 2004 First Fall Festival.
- 2004 First International Festival.
- 2005 Opening of a second building on campus.
- 2007 Acquisition of five additional acres for trail creation/expansion.
- 2007 School Team wins 2nd Place in the South Carolina State Championship Robotics Competition
- 2008 Opening of Five Oaks Middle School.
- 2008 Creation of The Annual Fund.
- 2008 Development of Curriculum Council.
- 2009 World-renown contemporary artist Jonathan Green visits Five Oaks.
- 2010 Toddler Program added.
- 2013 Internationally acclaimed Dr. Yong Zhao headlines Five Oak sponsored community event.
- 2017 Initial accreditation from SCISA*.
- 2018 Student Council created.
- 2018 Thandi Tutu-Gxashe, CEO of Desmond Tutu’s Tutudesk Campaign, visited FOA
- 2019 STEM accreditation granted from SCISA.
- 2020-2021 Perseverance through Covid Pandemic with no classroom shutdown
- 2020 Awarded the SCISA W. Keller Kissam School of Honor Award.
- 2021 First Participation in National Spanish Exam 2021.
- 2023 First World’s Fair.
- 2023 Twentieth Anniversary Celebration.
* South Carolina Independent School Association