Vancouver has changed dramatically in the last 50 years.
In that time, the population has exploded nearly tenfold — not to mention that neighboring Mount St. Helens also quite literally did explode — and Vancouver has emerged as a hub of culture, education and trade for the Pacific Northwest.
And yet, despite transformations, there’s one name and face that’s remained a constant: Nikki Skinner.
Her school, Skinner Montessori, is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2023. The school opened in 1973 and now serves about 80 children from preschool through sixth grade.
Despite the milestone, Skinner herself isn’t eager to bask in the limelight of accomplishment. She and her sisters, who founded the school alongside her, never set out with the dream to become teachers; the passion merely snuck up on them.
“I don’t think there was ever a point where we thought we’d be in it for the long haul,” Skinner said. “Now in my 70s, I think I’m blessed.”
Founding the school
Skinner and her family were raised in Vancouver — the town she recalls as one that was “far more country” than today.
After graduating with a business degree from the University of Portland in 1973, Skinner sought for a way to start a business — and a life — in town with her sister, Mary, who had experience as a teacher.
She said the idea to start a private school was the result of a simple equation: she knew how to manage finances and her sister had the ability to work with children. Soon enough, they had filed out the necessary paperwork with state officials in Olympia to open their own school with the help of a one-time $3,000 loan from their mother.
At the start, the school was nothing more than a one-room class of seven students. For the first few years, she said, they had to maintain second jobs because the academy alone wasn’t bringing in enough.
And yet, with just a few bumps in the road, Skinner’s school was able to move into its current location on 66th Avenue in 2001 — now with seven classrooms and a proper courtyard.
The school’s entryway is lined with newspaper clippings and yellowed photos from the five decades of the school’s operations — though still just a sliver of the encyclopedic memory of the school’s history that Skinner herself maintains. Skinner pointed at pictures of her now-adult students and recalled their favorite snacks and common conflicts with their siblings and how they managed to resolve the issues, almost as if they’d happened just last week.
“I think you get so involved in the day-to-day that you don’t realize how much time has gone by,” she said. “This is the best move I ever gave myself. Children cause you to look at yourself. They cause you to be empathetic and learn who you really are.”
A steady approach amid changing worlds
Without question, the COVID-19 transformed education as much as it did for any landscape in our world. The social component of education — one that’s paramount to the Montessori method — took perhaps the most substantial hit, with children being relegated to temporary online options apart from their friends.
At Skinner, desks were pushed apart, masks were donned and some classroom responsibilities and traditions were put on hold to remain sanitary.
Skinner took a hit in its enrollment, she said — though student numbers are climbing back, the current building still has a maximum capacity of closer to 120 students.
“It’s been a tremendous challenge,” she said. “Skinner’s been blessed with great teachers, we all pulled together. We all leaned on each other.”
The temporary grappling with remote learning and shift to include technology in curriculum, Skinner said, was little more than another tool for her teachers to learn — and one she said she’s still getting the hang of. But even across 50 years, even despite something like the COVID-19 pandemic, she said the approach to her teaching hasn’t changed all that much.
“I feel if there’s anything constructive that’s changed it’s been in maturation of the teachers as they commit to the approach and get better at seeing cues in children,” she said. “It teaches to the child. To be able to speed up when the child shows the concept is understood and to be able to come to a complete stop when they need it.”
When visiting the school on a recent Friday, that “complete stop” was on full display. Following a post-snack time cleanup altercation between two of her young students, Skinner paused an interview to sit them down and work through the conflict. The students, just 6 or 7, quickly worked it out and soon returned to cleanup tasks.
Despite launching the school as a way to make ends meet her in her 20s, the school and its method now appear inextricably linked to Skinner’s soul.
“I worry always about the finances, but I’m glad that I’ve been able to sidestep the obstacles. I like that —I didn’t know I had that in my spirit,” Skinner said, laughing. “For all of us, there’s an importance of love, my children have taught me that.”
“I don’t think as a business major I don’t think I saw that coming.”