When Cecilia Oballe and Kris
Gernert-Dott '86 walk through the dark rooms of 243 Park Ave., a fire-damaged
two-story brick Victorian with plywood for windows, they see kids playing, laughing and
“It takes some vision to see this as a school,” Oballe admitted during a
recent walk through the building that she and Gernert-Dott plan to open this fall as the
Montessori Toddler's and Children's House. “But everybody says we can do
Encouraged by College officials, contractors, and especially parents, the pair are
moving ahead with plans to start two Montessori programs: one for toddlers 18 months to 3
years, another for pre-schoolers ages 3 to 5. The use was approved last week by the City
Planning Board. Work is expected to start shortly. The construction management firm is
Bast-Hatfield of Clifton Park, which the pair say enthusiastically embraced the project
and is renovating at a substantial discount.
Mostly through word-of-mouth, the Montessori Toddler's and Children's House
is almost fully enrolled at 30 students 12 toddlers on the first floor, 18
pre-schoolers on the second in morning sessions Tuesdays through Fridays. Oballe
and Gernert-Dott say they are considering offering an afternoon session. Plans are to have
a one-to-five instructor to student ratio for the toddlers, and a one-to-nine ratio for
The possibility of the Montessori House presented itself as Oballe was looking to
expand the school she runs out of her Schenectady home. As the College was launching the
Union-Schenectady Initiative, a partnership to revitalize the “College Park”
neighborhood west of campus, Gernert-Dott approached Diane Blake, Union's vice
president for finance and administration, about a new home for the school.
“Things came together at the right time, so I encouraged them to explore it
because it fits so well with what we are trying to do in that neighborhood,” Blake
said. “I look at that neighborhood as a place that values education, and the
Montessori school fits right in with that.”
The College bought the building for a “reasonable price,” and has worked with
Oballe and Gernert-Dott to arrange for financing and renovation, Blake said.
As a number of parents have commented, the exterior of the brick building makes it look
like a school. Inside, even through the soot of a fire that appears to have caused only
superficial damage, the building looks inviting with its fireplaces, parlors and large
windows. A vacant lot on the building's south side will be used for parking, and the
back yard has plenty of room for a playground.
Maria Montessori, an Italian physician, left medicine in 1906 to start Casa di
Bambini (Children's House) for about 60 young children of working parents in
Rome. The premise of what has become the “Montessori Method” was simple:
children learn, with some assistance, by absorbing knowledge from their surroundings and
their interest in manipulating materials. Among Montessori's early American promoters
were Thomas Edison and Helen Keller.
Oballe, who is married to Union geology professor Donald Rodbell, is a certified
Montessori instructor. Gernert-Dott, associate dean of admissions at Union, plans to lend
her talents to both the Montessori School and the College's admissions office.
Photo above: 'Takes
some vision' Cecilia Oballe, left, and Kris Gernert-Dott '86 (with
daughter Tori) stand before what will be the Montessori Toddler's and Children's
House at 243 Park Ave.