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Bobbe Spink, founder and head of The Montessori School, sits in a classroom Wednesday. Spink will be retiring next year.

In 1972, Bobbe Spink didn't want to move to Chattanooga.

Her husband was eager to accept a position at TVA, but out of the six cities they had considered, Chattanooga was the only one without an established Montessori school, a school focused on self-directed education she had come to love while teaching outside Detroit.

So the couple made a deal. They would move to the Scenic City if, and only if, she could start a school. They bought a home on Signal Mountain and Bobbe Spink founded the school there, introducing the inaugural class of five students to the Montessori program in her own home.

Since 1972, the school has moved to a much larger location downtown, the student population has grown to 248 students, and thousands of children have come through the program.

And now, after 44 years at the helm, Bobbe Spink says it's time for her to retire.

"It was a labor of love from a lot of people for a lot of years," Spink said Wednesday, humble about her life's work.

Spink's own children came through the program, which serves toddlers through eighth-graders. Students are allowed to learn about a wide variety of subjects at their own paces, selecting the day's lessons or exercises for themselves with the support of a teacher.

Whether it's stacking blocks, learning the continents or counting beads, the lessons are always interactive and typically involve a tactile element, allowing students to learn with each other through hands-on activities.

"It produces a very innovative thinker," Spink said. "You learn how to work on your own and in a community."

Spink said it was initially sad to think about leaving Montessori after pouring so much of herself into the work.

"My children will tell you this school is the fourth child, and it's the favorite child," she laughed.

But now she's hoping to consult for other schools using the same program or write a book about her experiences teaching there. That and play with her three grandchildren.

Spink will officially retire on May 31, 2017, and the school has already contracted a local firm to begin a nationwide search for her successor, but she's not worried about the program she's leaving behind. Plenty of teachers and employees will stay behind to continue her work.

Paige Wichmann, director of community engagement, said the Chattanooga school is one of the larger Montessori schools in the nation, something that comes as a surprise to some of its earliest graduates who were taught in a house on Signal Mountain.

"It's funny to see their reactions to the fact that it's not a little program run out of someone's home," she said.

Wichmann said the class structure is essential to the success of the school's students because multiple grades are lumped together, allowing students to learn from their elders or lead those younger than them.

Students are taught responsibility for themselves and others through the experience while engaging with subject lessons that interest them and cleaning it all up at the end of the day.

"It's a really effective way to run a classroom," Wichmann said.

Board President Robyn Carlton weighed in on Spink's departure in a news release, saying, "Bobbe Spink is a quintessential leader, a fantastic spokesperson for the school, and a good friend of all in the school community; we have been so fortunate to have her as Head of School."

Whatever she does, Spink is leaving a long legacy behind her, but she believes more than ever in the model to which she has devoted her life.

Standing in the middle of a kindergarten classroom with all of the instruments, puzzles and maps put neatly away in their cubbies, she said, "Kids think they're playing here, but they're really learning."

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731. Follow on Twitter @emmettgienapp.

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