Montessori Mission & History

FBS 40 Anniversary Logo

Forest Bluff School Montessori Mission

Forest Bluff School, located near downtown Lake Bluff and Lake Forest, Illinois, is an independent, not-for-profit AMI accredited Montessori school, serving approximately 150 students between the ages of 18 months and 14 years. Paula Polk Lillard, Lynn Lillard Jessen, and Jane Linari co-founded our teacher-run school in 1982 as an institution that adheres to the educational philosophy and Montessori mission developed by Dr. Maria Montessori.

The principles and practices of the Montessori mission make clear that parents and teachers must work closely together to support each child’s self-formation in his or her journey from infancy to young adulthood. To this end, Forest Bluff School is a small, supportive and welcoming community, dedicated to warm relationships and close communication between adults.

We provide constant venues to nurture this outcome through frequent talks and lectures in our school and classroom settings, informal gatherings in parents’ homes for coffee and discussions, and our Parent Education programs: the Parent and Baby series, Montessori from the Start program, and Continuing Education events. By these means, our parents are given easy to understand, actionable information for supporting their children, and they form lasting friendships with each other. 

Our Montessori mission at Forest Bluff School is to guide children in their self-formation from birth through 14 years of age. Self-formation follows universal principles in addition to being unique for each child. It involves an integrating process that is guided by the developing intellect and human spirit. It is best achieved in an educational environment that fosters self-discipline and the opportunity to exercise freedom appropriate to the child’s developing sense of responsibility. These skills of strong character are readily observed in the child’s growing respect for others, the environment, and the self.

Academically, a Forest Bluff School education focuses on the child’s skills for discovery and exploration of a world that is both physical and spiritual in nature. We believe that this search for understanding, as opposed to the presentation, memorization and subsequent testing of information, is the essence of a meaningful education. It is a life-long process for each of us.

We encourage our teachers and parents to continue their own personal growth as a means to assist children in their self-development and in their attainment of those virtues important to a civilized and productive society: character, integrity, service and a passion for life.

Forest Bluff School History

In 1981, we, the future cofounders of Forest Bluff School, decided that if ever we were going to start our own school, now was the time. We loved to teach but were frustrated by the monopoly approach to education in the public sector, and the control of many school boards in the private sector by parents whose career experiences have not prepared them for this role. We wanted to teach in a school that consistently put the needs of children above the needs of adults.

Compared to the needs of adults, the needs of children are simple. The areas of development that children need to master in a literate and numerate society are: the ability to write and read, to think mathematically, and to develop a love of learning for life. For civilized behavior and the ability to relate positively with others and their surroundings, children need knowledge of good manners, respectful behavior, and care of self and the environment.

What we experienced in our previous thirty years as parents and teachers in schools, both public and private, was the dividing of the day into strictly scheduled short time slots for teaching of separate subjects by different teachers and specialists with the constant interruptions this entailed. There was a universal emphasis on assigned nightly homework, constant testing for memorization of prescribed information, the assignment of letter grades that are essentially meaningless as an assessment of each child’s overall intelligence, constant additions and substitutions in the curriculum and teaching materials that were not proven by either solid research or reliable practical experience in the classroom.

The following of these constantly changing fads resulted in increasingly higher costs per child with little or no overall improvement in the children’s progress. Often there was even regression. We wanted to show that we could build a school that met the needs of children with time-tested quality results for their development of character, academic learning, and interest in exploring the world for a lifetime, and to do so at a reasonable financial expenditure.

We were joined in this endeavor by a third cofounder, an experienced Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) teacher. We were all three, as teachers, familiar with Montessori education and believed that its principles and practices were well suited to meet our goals. We did not put the title “Montessori” in our school’s incorporation, however, because we wanted to see traditional Montessori education in operation in our own school setting, and determine if we wanted to modify or supplement it in any way. 

Forest Bluff School: A Timeline

Forest Bluff School sign, Montessori mission and historyIn 1982, we rented available space in a public school building and opened Forest Bluff School. Our first class consisted of 14 three- and four-year-old children. Our Montessori teacher-cofounder taught the class and managed its day-to-day administrative duties. Meanwhile, our other two cofounders commuted to Milwaukee everyday to take a course at the Montessori Institute of Milwaukee, becoming AMI Montessori teachers as well. Eventually, we became a school of 150 students from ages 18 months to 14 years with a faculty of ten AMI Montessori teachers, one of whom served as Head of School. Our office staff consisted of a school secretary and a business manager.

Now in its 40th year, Forest Bluff School continues to meet our initial two goals: to serve the basic needs of children in their self-formation and to do so as a successful not-for-profit business. “Successful” to us includes being financially viable, charging as low a tuition as possible, and operating each year on a balanced budget. Happily, to date, we have met both of these goals.

Our graduates are achieving excellent records at public and private high schools, large and small, local and national. We have balanced our budget every single year with only one exception. We have achieved all this by concentrating on the needs of children for quality education and simplicity in their lives, and basing every administrative decision on what is most helpful to children, whether or not it is the most convenient one for adults.

Our forty year journey of building a school has been rewarding in every sense. Our relationships with our parents are deep and lasting. Our love and respect for them and for our children, know no bounds. As teachers of Forest Bluff School, our bonds of support and appreciation for each other carry us through every new challenge. Our knowledge of teaching and how to help children in their self-formation deepens with each passing year. Our gratitude to Maria Montessori and her colleagues for giving us the gift of traditional Montessori education, with its extraordinary means for helping children to explore and discover their world, is everlasting.


Forest Bluff School is housed in two beautiful buildings that were specifically designed for the Montessori approach to education. Well-appointed classrooms, which open onto individual patios, are flooded with natural light. Prairie grasses, wooded areas, and nearby ravines invite the children’s ongoing exploration of plant life and animal habitats.

The school’s location in the quiet village setting of Lake Bluff, IL makes possible the children’s independent discovery of community and business life through their daily “going out” activities to the public library, village service buildings, shops and parks.

Forest Bluff School Natural Landscape, Montessori Mission and History
Forest Bluff School Natural Landscape

We are admiringly grateful for all you have done for us and our children. It seems like only yesterday that we first visited your school. What impressed us initially was the practical approach to learning all aspects of a classic education but in a much more meaningful way. Laura appreciated the fact that our children could fall in love with learning by satisfying their natural curiosity about the world around them. 

Looking back over the last seven years we realize that you have given our children so much more than a typical education could have offered. We believe that what sets you apart from others is your orthodox approach to following the teachings of Maria Montessori. Along the way, there was probably the temptation to stray from certain principles, but your strong belief in the doctrine seems always to have guided your actions. As a result, the interests of the child, the whole child, always come first and thankfully, the direction of the school is not influenced by the pressures of a culture heavily influenced by materialism or the short sighted wishes of well meaning parents.

While the teachers have devoted themselves to giving our children and education, you have tirelessly attempted to educate the parents as well. It is not an easy job to have others understand and agree to follow a mission, especially when it involves their children. 

As we watch our children grow and experience this world, we are very appreciative of how your efforts have helped shape who they are. It is magical what you give them (or perhaps, what you do not take away from them).