words: Jessica Hayes
Images: courtesy Nakita Glendenning and Sisten Kevin Bopp
In Fort Smith, Arkansas’ modern history, there is an educator that has achieved somewhat of a cult status. From 1969-1986, Sister Kevin Bopp served as founder, master teacher, and directress of St. Scholastica Montessori School. During that time, she was regularly featured in the newspaper and on television.
Born Betty Jean Bopp in 1939, Sister Kevin grew up in Little Rock and moved to Fort Smith in 1956 to board at and attend St. Scholastica High School for her senior year. Her education with the Benedictine Sisters began in kindergarten, and she always knew she would join them when she finished school. In 1959, she took her final vows.
Sister Kevin spent her early years with the Sisters as an elementary teacher for the Catholic Schools of Arkansas, part of the Diocese of Little Rock. She taught in Conway, Saint Joseph’s Orphanage (later Saint Joseph’s Home) in North Little Rock, and in a small school in Slovak, near Stuttgart. When she returned to Fort Smith, close friends introduced her to the Montessori approach to education and Sister Kevin knew she found her calling. She left for training at the Mid-America Montessori Teacher Education Center in Kansas City, Missouri.
Sister Kevin fell in love with the work of Dr. Maria Montessori, an Italian physician who spent decades studying child development, observing children, giving lectures around the world, and training teachers. At the heart of Dr. Montessori’s work is the belief that all children have within them the adult they will become. It is the job of the teacher to help that child develop to the best of his or her potential. This development occurs through respecting the child’s abilities, and instilling a sense of responsibility and intrinsic motivation.
The subsequent closing of St. Scholastica High School in 1968 left a large amount of vacant space, and after her training was complete, Sister Kevin received the okay to open her school. In the midst of transforming the classroom, she was called to Mena, Arkansas to stay with another sister for six months. During this time, she scoured yard sales looking for just the right teaching materials. Friends helped her make matching sets of aprons and build a sink that was just the right size for a three-year-old. Sister Kevin had a vision for her school, and she ensured it came to fruition. When St. Scholastica Montessori School opened in the fall of 1969, it was the second Montessori school in Arkansas.
Sister Kevin had eighteen students her first year, and she was the only teacher. By 1971, she had more than 100 students and seven teachers. When her Primary program reached 120 students, she capped the enrollment. The demand for Sister Kevin’s program was obvious. In 1979, the Southwest Times Record reported that it was common for new mothers to call her from the hospital to put their child on the waiting list. Parents, enamored of Sister Kevin and their child’s progress, requested an elementary program. The first year there were seven first graders. She added a class each year following until the school went through sixth grade.
Many of the materials used in the classrooms at St. Scholastica were handmade by Sister Kevin. The classrooms also included pieces from her childhood. Students learned to make a bed using Sister Kevin’s original baby bed. She taught them “respect for oneself, respect for one another, and respect for things,” the things being the materials in the classroom. Jack Blessington, a Montessori pioneer in America, visited the school once. Sister Kevin recalls that when he opened the door to the classroom he said, “My God, people must stand here and drool.”
Sister Kevin’s memories of the children of St. Scholastica Montessori School make it obvious that her students blessed her life as much as she impacted theirs. Her voice becomes more and more animated as she recalls her years with them, and her smile is impossible to miss. She remembers greeting them each morning, on her knees, with a handshake and “good morning.” Students were always spoken to at eye level, never from above.
Sister Kevin left St. Scholastica Montessori in 1986 to attend a two-year retreat in St. Paul, Minnesota with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet (CSJ). She stayed and on May 1, 1996, joined the CSJ and left the Benedictine Sisters.
In St. Paul, her many years at St. Scholastica were put to use when she was asked to establish a preschool. Although it was not a formal Montessori program, she used the philosophy and made materials for the classroom. Today, Sister Kevin, at seventy-six, serves as the assistant to the Associate Community Living Coordinator at the Carondelet Village, a position she formerly held. Carondelet Village is a joint partnership between the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and Presbyterian Homes & Services in St. Paul. She supports her fellow sisters who are in assisted living or nursing care services. It keeps her busy and allows her to continue ministering to others.
After her departure, the Sisters of St. Scholastica made the decision, in spring 1988, to close the Montessori School. Because of the school’s impact, through Sister Kevin, on their children, a small group of parents banded together and kept the school alive. The hard work and dedication of those parents resulted in the opening of Fort Smith Montessori School in the fall of 1988 in a house on Duncan Street.
With materials purchased from the Sisters and many of the same teaching staff, the house on Duncan Street served as the school’s home for a handful of years. As the school grew, they moved to a former church on Jenny Lind Road where it remains today. Sister Kevin returns to Fort Smith occasionally to visit. Showing her around the school can be quite nerve wracking. Always a perfectionist about her former school and the children’s environment, she keeps the tour guide on her toes.
Sister Kevin has been described as a “motivator,” “visionary,” a “mover and shaker.” The love she felt for her students was obvious to everyone, especially the parents. Kathy Coleman, a former parent under Sister Kevin, recalls, “She loved my son and made him feel like the most important one, although I knew he was not.” Sister Kevin thought all of the children were important.
Sister Kevin is remembered for many things, including her ability to convince adults to do what she wanted and the family she created at the school. According to Carol Harper, also a former parent under Sister Kevin, she made parents responsible, too. Everyone had a role to play in making both the students and the school successful.
One of the school’s biggest fundraisers was selling cookies on a stick at the Old Fort River Festival. Parents used the kitchen at Kentucky Fried Chicken and baked loads of cookies to Sister Kevin’s specifications. The cookies were then sold during the festival, by the children dressed as elves. Sister Kevin insisted the children should be the face of the operation.
She had a gift for bringing families together in a way that not many people can. Friendships that formed all those years ago continue to grow and strengthen with each passing year. The bonds formed at St. Scholastica Montessori are still strong today. Sister Kevin keeps in touch with as many of her students as possible, and nothing thrills her more than locating another one. Her goal was to give children a solid foundation that would serve them later in life. Parents like Carol and Kathy, who see the results in their children today, say she was absolutely successful.
Sister Kevin, in looking back on those days at St. Scholastica, said, “There were no bad days. It was all just wonderful.”