Small school soldiers on after building burns down

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Livonia — Their school burned to the ground three months ago, but students and teachers from the Northville Montessori Center have risen above the ashes.

With heavy hearts, they picked up and moved to Ladywood High School, an all-girls Catholic school in nearby Livonia that offered four classrooms for the displaced K-8 students.

Northville Montessori Center student Sophia Shaw prepares for gym class with Arnov Khatri, 10, at Ladywood High School. The students from Northville Montessori relocated to Ladywood High School in Livonia after their school burned in March.

In their temporary home, Northville Montessori's 55 students miss amenities like in-room bathrooms, sinks and drinking fountains, but they've learned lessons in loss, perseverance and friendship.

"I never really appreciated the school until it was gone, and now we have to share space with other students," said seventh-grader Guinevere Gall, 13, whose father, Keith, heads the school. "When it happened, my mom said I probably would have to go to a public school, and that made me realize how much I loved my friends because I thought I would have to abandon them, and I couldn't stop crying."

She added, "It's not just the structure itself, it's the people that are important."

For 33 years, Northville Montessori's structure was a red brick schoolhouse on Haggerty between Five Mile and Six Mile in Plymouth. The March 3 blaze destroyed the building, leaving school officials scrambling for a site to finish the year.

"That building was special because it was a sweet haven that sometimes felt like more of a home than my own home," said eighth-grader Maddi Cadaret, 14.

Despite the loss, students and staff continued with their school year as planned, including a trip to Washington, D.C., in April by 11 students for a civics competition. The team won an honorable mention, Keith Gall said.

"We made up team T-shirts with what I felt (was) the appropriate symbol: a phoenix," he said.

Students will complete classes Wednesday at Ladywood, but where they'll start again this fall is unclear. The school's eventual goal is to rebuild at the Plymouth site.

"We own that property, and it's about six acres in an ideal spot where Plymouth, Northville and Livonia converge," said Gall, whose mother, Lynn, founded the school in 1976.

Guinevere Gall, 13, listens as her fellow students read poetry during class. Fifty-five students and their teachers were displaced by the fire.

"We just don't have enough information from our insurance company yet as far as how much money we'll get and we also must get approval from the (state) superintendent to approve the plans," he said. "Another option is finding a facility that better meets our needs, but may be cheaper just to rent."

A GoFundMe campaign to raise money to buy classroom supplies and rent space has raised more than $31,000.

For now, Gall said he'd prefer to keep the school at Ladywood.

"I'm hoping Ladywood will allow us to come back in the fall," he said. "We're looking at other schools with things including bathrooms in the classrooms like we had at the Montessori school. A playground for preschoolers would also be nice, but if not, we can manage with what they have here."

Gall said a cadre of volunteers from the school, including alumni, pitched in to help out after the fire destroyed $100,000 worth of materials, refrigerators, computers and personal belongings.

"It was really hard to see the building after the fire," he said. "A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into creating it."

Gall said after the fire, Northville Montessori lost between five and seven students who enrolled in other schools.

For some, the most tragic loss was the guinea pig and two tanks of fish that died in the blaze.

"Humphry the guinea pig was a great pet," said Gall. "He put up with a lot, but never bit anybody in the three or four years he was part of our school."

On a recent morning inside Ladywood High School, Montessori students were reciting their haiku, limericks and other poetry in front of their classmates.

It looked like any other classroom. There was laughter, applause and congratulatory comments following each recitation — and self-deprecation from the poets.

Arnov Khatri's limerick especially impressed the teacher:

"Raindrops stain the outside of my window Falling into a endless medow Nuturing the plants with care Giving cars something to wear Following me in a hopeless shadow."

Gall, seated behind his desk while students read their poetry in front of the class, could not stop praising Arnov, a 10-year-old fifth-grader.

"Wait. Wow," he said. "That's an amazing line — 'giving cars something to wear,' I never heard anything like that before. A star is born. Holy cow! Oh my goodness.'"

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