New building welcomes youngest learners

A new building aims to meet the demand for high-quality preschool education in the Tri-Cities by adding three classrooms dedicated to Montessori learners at the new Ferguson Education Center in Richland.

The 5,765-square-foot building opened just after Thanksgiving and can house 60 students at one time at 1107 Stevens Drive.

It is named for the late Katie Ferguson, a former teacher at Christ the King Catholic School and its first lay principal, who dedicated her career to the school, retiring in the late 1980s.

Her husband, Bob, had served as chief executive officer of the Washington Public Power Supply System, now known as Energy Northwest, from 1980-83 and also had served as deputy assistant secretary for nuclear programs for the U.S. Department of Energy.

Benefactor Bob Ferguson and family friend, JoJo Safranski, stand near the new Ferguson Education Center under construction in summer 2020. (Courtesy Kelly Buchanan)

The Fergusons had been investigating ways to leave a lasting impact on the school at the time Katie passed away suddenly in 2018 at age 83.

Initial plans of adding a pre-fabricated modular building expanded to a custom-built design to meet the needs of current preschoolers.

“Katie always believed early education was formative and she was passionate about education in general, and especially for students at Christ the King,” said Bob, a large benefactor of the Ferguson Education Center. “A modular unit wasn’t going to do the right thing and now we have this beautiful building.”

Demand for Montessori

The project also had been a dream for Kelly Buchanan, program director for Christ the King Montessori School, who saw the demand for private preschool when she first returned to the area in 2009 and couldn’t find a school for her young son.

She pitched the idea of a preschool to parish and school administrators as a way to work as a feeder to the current elementary and middle school.

The Montessori program began about a decade ago and within a matter of years it had outgrown its single classroom and expanded to a second in a separate building on the school campus, once home to a convent for nuns and sisters.

But student demand continued to outpace capacity.

“We’d be full on the same day we opened registration,” Buchanan said. This was partly from returning students in a multiyear classroom environment, and increased demand when Buchanan began to offer an all-day preschool option.

“Our waiting list frequently had 25 students on it,” she said.

Construction began in late 2019 and slowed temporarily in the spring due to Covid-19 restrictions. A fall opening was pushed back to late 2020, but Buchanan still wanted to offer preschool education to the 60 families who had registered over the winter and were still expecting a spot in September.

She temporarily eliminated the all-day preschool option to accommodate students for at least half a day and stretched students across three classrooms when the 2020-21 school year began.

Christ the King Montessori preschool students attend class in the newly opened Ferguson Education Center. (Courtesy Kelly Buchanan)

Students as young as 3 years old now wear face coverings the entire time they are in the classroom or on the playground, with the exception of snack time, which is eaten at tables with clear, plastic dividers. “They often just need a reminder to keep the mask over their nose also,” Buchanan said.

Covid-19 impacts also have meant the use of mini “stop” signs in the classroom to indicate which materials have been touched and require disinfecting before future use.

The stop signs are placed by the students, demonstrating the Montessori philosophy that encourages independence even from the youngest learners.

It’s a method that focuses less on worksheets and using a pencil and more on activities that build motor skills through hands-on learning.

Buchanan explained how a young student recently saw a project through to the finish when working with glue that ended up on the table.

The child knew to get a sponge, soap and water to clean the table, and then retrieved a mop to dry the floor after spilling water while scrubbing.

“There is no maximum of what a student is capable of,” Buchanan said. “We guide them in their development, and when a student is in a prepared learning environment, it makes the process easier.”

Buchanan’s team combats the effect of devices, mostly tablets, phones or TV screens, that she says are not beneficial to their brain development.

The teachers noticed that many students had lost all of the skills they had worked on during the 2019-20 school year once school went all-virtual in March.

“The quality of TV shows is so much different than it was just a decade ago when ‘Dora the Explorer’ and ‘Little Einsteins’ were popular,” she said.

She said kids aren’t benefiting from learning their numbers or sounds in the way they used to from preschool programming.

Montessori classrooms offer opportunities to learn fine motor skills to sew, grind coffee beans (not to be eaten), arrange flowers, polish wood and develop language skills with the use of a dollhouse.

“Everything we have is for the child to create independence and it’s not the same as what they have at home,” Buchanan said.

Generosity makes it possible

Supporting an environment critical to retaining or increasing enrollment at the K-8 school was attractive to the Fergusons, who were looking to make a large charitable donation using profits earned from the sale of a company and its stock.

Bob declined to share his total investment in the project and Christ the King didn’t reveal the final figures, but a building permit issued from the city of Richland valued the project at $850,000. The general contractor was Siefken & Sons Construction Inc.

The school focuses on a different character virtue each month and the virtue of generosity is fitting for the month the school opened, completed with the assistance of additional donations besides the Fergusons’ contribution.

“It’s wonderful to have the space to expand enrollment for our little ones,” said Monsignor Thomas Champoux, pastor of Christ the King. “Here, we hope to help them learn, not only numbers and letters and shapes, but self-management and how to apply knowledge throughout their school years and into the rest of their lives. Most of all, we want them to learn about God’s love, and know that his love lasts forever.”

Prior to her death, Katie also helped coordinate Christmas concerts to benefit Christ the King Catholic School, headlined by her brother, Howard Crosby. Singer Bing Crosby was their uncle.

Registration for the 2021-22 preschool year will open in late January.

A dedication of the Ferguson Education Center is planned in March and will include a commissioned mural for the lobby featuring butterflies.

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