Palm Harbor Montessori Academy History

Palm Harbor Montessori Academy was founded by Christine Varkas.

Christine is a certified Montessori educator with advanced degrees and specialist credentials in education. Her experience as an educational specialist originally got her interested in the Montessori method. “When I saw how beautifully the curriculum and materials were prepared, it was easy to fall in love with the approach. Montessori is a total developmental, multi-sensory program that most educational programs only strive to be.”

In 1983, there were no Montessori programs in the Palm Harbor area. Not only did Christine want her children to attend school in their community but she also did not want them commuting to Tampa two hours a day for a desirable educational program. Ultimately the need for a quality school in our community is what motivated her to start PHMA. Christine recently commented about her decision:

“This turned out to be a wonderful decision for my children. They have made life long friends by attending Palm Harbor Montessori for many years. The friendships I see forming amongst the children are just amazing. My daughter has a friend she has been close to since she was two. He and she still chat regularly. Her very best friend is a girl who has been at the school since she was two. They were not even always in the same class but still managed to stay close. My daughter also has other friends she is still in touch with. These friendships are jewels in her life.”

Once Christine decided to start a school she needed to find a place for it. After looking at various properties for quite a while, Christine asked her realtor to show her the Nebraska site, a location they had driven by numerous times.

“When I walked through Mrs. Riviere’s house (which is now the toddler building) and walked outside under the huge oak tree, I got such a peaceful feeling that I didn’t even think about it for more than a minute. I said to Don Runkle, the realtor, ‘I’ll take it’. His mouth fell open. I had no idea if I could qualify for the loan necessary. I wrote a one thousand dollar good faith check. The next few days brought in several other offers for the property. Mrs. Riviere decided to sell the property to me because she liked the idea of her last piece of land becoming a school.

“The school acquired the Eikel house after Minnie Eikel passed away. When I bought the school we made a deal that Mrs. Eikel could remain in her house as long as she wished and then the property would be deeded to the school. Which I am sure is another reason why my offer was accepted to purchase the property.”

Before the Rivieres homesteaded the land, the Seminole Indians inhabited it. The Riviere and the Eikel families (brother and sister) homesteaded land that spanned from Alderman road to south of Nebraska. The five acres of school property was their very last piece. Mrs. Riviere claimed that finding arrowheads on their property was a common occurrence.

Palm Harbor Montessori Academy opened in July 1983, with a very small summer program. The first regular classes opened in August 1983 with a preprimary class (3-6 year olds) and a junior elementary (6-9 year olds) class. Tuition was approximately $3,000 for full time students. The first two classes were located in the current toddler house with approximately 33 students. Fran Hackman was the primary teacher and her class was full. Judi Charlap was the junior elementary teacher. Her class was very small. Judi remained with the school for many years and opened the first senior elementary class (9-12 year olds). Christine originally was in the office located on the back of the toddler house. This office is still Christine’s favorite room at the school because one can see the entire campus and watch the children play from that room.

In 1984, a spacious 8,500 square foot facility was added to the site providing six additional classrooms for primary and junior elementary. The atrium was added because Christine thought the long narrow corridor resembled a hospital. Herb Norbom suggested adding a skylight and opening up the whole ceiling, thus creating the atrium. After the completion of this building, the enrollment totaled 85 students.

In the early years, Fran Hackman would invite Mrs. Eikel to her class to visit the students. After Mrs. Eikel removed the chewing tobacco from her mouth, she would sit in a rocking chair and tell stories. Occasionally, the class would take field trips and visit her in her home. During these years the children enjoyed the cows in the pasture, which is now the Middle School and parking area. They would also help themselves to a snack from the many fruit trees. Unfortunately all of the fruit trees froze out one year.

The school’s original plans looked like a farm school. Included in these plans was the dream of a zoo. Catherine Koumianos who is Christine’s sister was school principal at that time. She felt it was an extremely valuable asset to the students to learn animal husbandry. She believed it could also be very calming to an active child who needs meaningful outdoor activities. This dream did not become a reality until Joel Zuckerman was hired in 1998. The zoo closed in 2003, but the 5 animal kingdoms are now in the classrooms.

In 1998, the state of the art New Middle School was built. Christine had the following to say about the addition of the NMS to PHMA:

“I swore I would never do it. But I did and I am very happy with this addition. Our students are so ready to handle the next stage of life following the preparation they receive in this program. It is a phenomenal program where academics are second to none and students have a sure sense of themselves. I am continuously impressed with their ability to make excellent choices for themselves in social, academic and personal decisions.”

In the Fall of 2000 an infant program was added at the Nebraska campus. The junior Olympic-sized swimming pool was completed and swimming lessons began in the Fall of 2002. Plans for a gymnasium, cafeteria, and media center are on the drawing board and new classrooms will be built in the future to meet the increasing demand for PHMA programs.

Palm Harbor Montessori Academy and New Middle School employ more than 40 professionals dedicated to serving approximately 250 students from North Pinellas and Pasco County. In addition to local students and staff, there is a growing international presence at our school. PHMA’s reputation as a training school brings Montessori interns from around the world.

PHMA does not discriminate on the basis of sex, race or creed. We believe that social, racial, religious, and cultural diversity in the staff and student body contributes greatly to the value of the school experience.