The faces of 325 Sussex School graduates grin from the walls of former Montana Gov. Frank Cooney's house.

There was another familiar smile in the house's library recently. Bente Winston, a math teacher from Denmark, founded Sussex School 45 years ago.

After the birth of her first child, she visited all of the schools in Missoula and became friends with an art teacher who traveled between schools. She introduced Winston to other teachers.

"I realized that they were not all that happy, and I came from a pretty happy teaching environment," she said. "So I just thought, 'This can't be for me.'"

Winston was in the midst of starting an alternative school in Denmark before she moved to America. She decided to do the same thing here.

Winston convinced five other families to come to a meeting – "and it just exploded out of that, pretty much."

She and her husband, University of Montana geology professor emeritus Don Winston, bought a house at 212 W. Sussex St. in 1971. It started small – a preschool of six children.

They worked with the Falls Creek Environmental Education Foundation in 1972, landing a $61,000 Health, Education and Welfare Department grant so long as a local school system cosponsored the school, according to Missoulian archives. The idea was to meld the alternative school into Missoula County Public Schools.

Then-superintendent Greg Tabor supported their efforts.

"Then he took it to the board, and there was standing-room only, and they turned it down," Winston said. "Of course we were very disappointed, but we said, 'Well, we just have to keep going.' And we just kept going."

***

Growth was slow but steady as word spread to parents around town who were looking for something different for their children. By 1974, they had to expand to the house next door. In 1980, they had 36 students in grades K-8. Winston realized they needed to move.

"We just expanded a few grades at a time, but then one family took their three kids out of public school (all in different grades)," she said. "This was a family that knew a lot of families, so more kids came and it just evolved from there."

When she and the other families were originally contemplating the idea of opening a school, they had met in the exact library she sat in two weeks ago, reflecting on the school's history. It was former Gov. Frank Cooney's house, at 1800 S. Second St. W. One of her first thoughts was, "God, this would be a beautiful place for a school."

Winston chuckled, "I was told I was being obnoxious."

But as Sussex School was hoping to expand, Winston got word that the 2.5-acre property was soon going to be for sale. Sussex snatched it up in 1980, and continued to grow. After the move, enrollment grew to 52.

Today, the school is nearing capacity. Next year there will be about 125 K-8 students.

"We don't want to get much bigger, any bigger, really," said current director Greg Friedman.

But it still has a family feel. The campus is small and cozy. Children flow freely between classrooms, grade levels and subjects. Parents volunteer 60 hours a year.

"It's always been a parent cooperative," Winston said. "That's meant different things over time. Right now, you can send your kid here, but you can't just drop them off and not be involved. You have to put in time to the school as a parent."

Many parents joined their students for a week in March, known as "block week." They have a week of out-of-the-box learning that takes a deep dive into different subjects. For example, Friedman took one class geocaching.

"Education's not really about you drop your kids off at school and they pop back out educated," Friedman said. "That's not the way it works in any situation. I think we're just a little bit more explicit about that. This needs to be a partnership between the parents and the school."

***

It's a holistic pedagogy. There are no grades. Instead, students get feedback through portfolios that are crafted from kindergarten to eighth grade.

"It's a giant collection of their growth as a person over time that they're curating," Friedman said. "So it also becomes a diagnostic tool."

Students are not confined to one classroom. They don’t see the same faces every day. They work across all grade levels and subjects. A math class will focus on a topic, the Pyramids of Giza, for example – which then trickles into social studies, art, history and writing.

"It's not seeing everything in little boxes all the time," Friedman said. "I think it's important for kids not to be put in those little boxes – at least not left there."

In that sense, the community is a classroom, Winston said.

"When they go on these field trips, it's part of the classroom,” she said. “They go skiing, they go climbing, they go hiking, they go canoeing, they go rafting. I mean, it's all part of the classroom. So in that sense, there are no real walls here."

The goal has never been to rival other schools. It's simply another choice for parents, Winston said.

"It's always about the kids," she said.

Winston no longer works at the school, but she hasn't left. She serves on the board and she's a MathCounts coach. For years, she tracked students after they left Sussex to see how they were doing – essentially becoming the unofficial alumni coordinator.

"We needed to know, are we doing the right thing?" she said.

"Turning them into good people is a big part of the curriculum here. Well-educated, but good people."

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Reporter for the Missoulian