Ann Arbor Educator Dedicated to Student-Centered Learning

At 84 years old, Pat Montgomery, Ph.D., continues to dedicate her life to promote education where children of all backgrounds learn and are nurtured in a relaxed atmosphere, making their own choices in education.

Montgomery founded the private Ann Arbor Clonlara School with her husband Jim in 1967 with the mission to promote each learner’s curiosity, strengths, interests and talents in a comforting environment.

“I don’t oppose public schools,” she said. “I’m just saying that things can be done differently.”

The flying nun

Montgomery began her career as a nun with the Order of the Sisters of the Divine Providence, spending 12 years at a Catholic school.

“In those days, the Catholic schools were chock-full of kids, and bursting at the seams, and they needed teachers fast in the classroom,” said Montgomery. “So, I started to teach when I was 18 years old, when I was literally in high school. And that was okay with the condition that you were working toward a teaching certificate.”

Montgomery attended college classes on the weekends and during the summer. It took her eight years to earn her bachelor’s degree, and more time for her teaching certificate. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Duquesne in 1961, left the convent, and went on to teach in Westland and Ann Arbor.

She earned her master’s degree from the University of Michigan in 1967 and then, had a child and was motivated to open her own school.

“And I thought, I don’t want this child to go to public or Catholic schools because I know what they are like and they were not geared toward understanding a child’s growth and development needs,” said Montgomery. “They are geared toward the rules and regulations that help adults primarily, and they help keep order.…Order is not what a child’s life is about.”

Ann Arbor, Irish, and international roots

Montgomery said she considered a Montessori school for her child, but she wanted something even more flexible, from a child’s perspective. She said she decided to start her own school to achieve the right balance.

Clonlara started with serving 3 and 4 year olds, because by the time Montgomery began the school she had two children of that age. It started in a house on Jewett Street, adding a grade every year, before building a larger school in 1997.

To honor her father, Montgomery decided to name the school “Clonlara” after the town in Ireland that her father, John Clancy, was from, as he had donated $4,000 to help start the school. “Clonlara” means “meadow of the mare” in Gaelic, which also aptly fit the philosophy of the school, because the sheep, ponies and horses freely graze there. In a similar way, Clonlara is dedicated to educating students in a freeing manner, based on students’ curiosities, interests, talents, and in a humane and non-structured approach.

Schools like Clonlara were part of the “free school” movement of that era, which later became the “alternative school movement,” because people thought “free” meant that there was no tuition, rather than a freedom-empowering approach to education.
Montgomery also helped to establish the National Coalition of Alternative Community Schools. The success of Clonlara’s alternative education led Montgomery to also begin Clonlara’s Home-Based Education Program in 1979 (now called the Off-Campus Program), with the belief that parents can, and should, play an important role in the education of their children.

Still going strong

Montgomery remains active with speaking engagements and frequent writing and lectures about homeschooling and non-traditional educational methods. She was recently presented a proclamation from Ann Arbor City Council Member Kirk Westphal on behalf of Mayor Christopher Taylor for Clonlara’s commitment to education on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the school’s founding.

Pat Montgomery served as the executive director of Clonlara from 1967 to 2005. Then, Chandra Montgomery Nicol, her daughter, became Clonlara’s executive director. Chandra was also the first Clonlara student when the school opened.

In addition to their on-campus school, Clonlara’s U.S. and international offices serve almost 1,000 students in more 40 different countries. In 2013, Clonlara began its online program, with “ready-to-go” courses.

What is your favorite children’s book series?
When I was little I loved Nancy Drew.

What is your favorite children’s outing in Ann Arbor? All the parks! Arboretum, peony fields. Matthai Gardens, with the century plant.

What is your best advice for students? Take hold! This is about you…Take it, hold it, embrace it, and run with it. Take everything you can out of your experience, wherever you are.
This is your education.

What do you do for fun? For fun I enjoy listening to music, mostly classical, and reading. Because I am an introvert I enjoy doing things that are away from the maddening crowd. Introverts feed off being quiet, into themselves.

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