An inspired partnership: Mountaineer Montessori Middle School and Unity of Kanawha Valley

One of the oldest buildings in South Hills has started a new chapter in its long and storied history.

The stone structure, located at 804 Myrtle at Bridge Road, has been home to several religious congregations since it was built in 1902. For the first 55 years, the building housed Elizabeth Memorial Methodist Church before the church relocated to Oakwood Road in 1977, and later welcomed a Presbyterian congregation.  In 2007, it was purchased by Unity of Kanawha Valley (UKV).

The sanctuary, which features majestic stained-glass windows, was completed before Bridge Road was paved. The original building was constructed from stone quarried on Davis Creek and hauled over mud roads on horse drawn wagons. In 1955, the building was expanded with a community room addition.

UKV, which had moved from North Charleston to the South Hills location, undertook extensive repairs and updates to help restore the sanctuary to its original splendor. The building soon became home to not only religious services, but a wide variety of community events.

But while the building was a hub of activity on the weekends and evenings, it was generally quiet during weekdays. So when Mountaineer Montessori School began looking for locations to add an adolescent component to its existing preschool to sixth grade program, 804 Myrtle Road, it seemed like a natural fit:  the two organizations shared a similar vision and commitment to service, the building offered a large lower level and kitchen and the location provided a perfect home base for community-based, experiential learning that is a hallmark of then Montessori Middle School model.


Mountaineer Montessori Middle School opens

Lead Guide Bridgett Steveson, Unity President Sharon Mullins, Designer Jill Watkins and MMS Director Jennifer Carriger

In August 2014, Mountaineer Montessori Middle School (MMMS), serving seventh- and eighth-grade students, officially opened its doors at the South Hills church and an inspired partnership was born.

Since then, students and teachers have taken full advantage of the location, establishing classrooms and individual and collaborative learning areas throughout the church’s lower level, using the kitchen for weekly cooking sessions and frequent fundraising events and enjoying the beautiful Sunrise neighborhood and access to the Carriage Trail and downtown Charleston.

“It has been a treat for the staff and visitors to hear the laughter of the students both on the grounds and in the building,” says UKV President Sharon Mullins.“ School and church personnel find many ways to cooperate in enriching student experiences,” she said.

As the MMMS program continued to expand and it evolved, new needs surfaced and the two organizations took their partnership to a new level by collaborating on facility improvements last summer. Both parties wanted to upgrade the carpet, ceiling and paint the walls of the activity room. Students also had ideas for enhancing their school, and developed own wish lists and design concepts for new learning areas.


Transforming a vision into reality

Bridgett Steveson and Sharon Mullins.

Jill Watkins, a professional designer, volunteered her professional skills to transform those ideas into a reality.

 “I have friends whose children attend the school and I am familiar with the Montessori approach to teaching.  I wanted to merge ideas generated by the students with a professional design approach and have the final design be in line with Montessori values.  I do some community work occasionally, and this seemed like a good opportunity to help out,” said Watkins, who brought 24 years of experience to the project. She opened Watkins Design Works, a West Virginia-based commercial and residential interior design and green building consulting firm, in 2014. Her work features an emphasis on green design, sustainability and locally-sourced products.

The original space needed to be a bit brighter and updated so that the school could be more functional and lively, she noted. To achieve that objective, separate areas were created within the large activity room including a morning gathering space with the fireplace as focal point; a group project area with movable custom-made wood tables crafted from West Virginia trees by Mark Bolton; and the stage, which became more functional with book storage and bean bags.  New ceiling tiles, lighting and paint brightened the room, and carpet tile selected by the church will be easy to maintain, she said.




A community effort

Combining funds and volunteer labor and guided by the professional design plan, the Unity congregation and school collaborated to create a beautiful, functional space that serves both the school and weekend and evening church activities.

The refreshed spaces have met with rave reviews from students, Unity members and the public.

“Many church members enter the building from the parking lot. As they open the door, they see the beautiful new carpeting, the handsomely crafted maple tables, the stage with library bookcases and the bright color photos of students in their activities throughout the community. What a lovely introduction to the facility!,” Mullins said.

“Design is important in all aspects of our lives, and can affect our outlook, productivity and general well-being.  It is something we notice, even if on a subconscious level.  Everyone deserves good design,” Watkins said.

Unity of Kanawha Valley offers a wonderful home base to prepare students to go out into their community and world.

The redesign of the Unity community room is a big hit with students, teachers and congregants alike.