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A class for the ages

The "starting six" at Countryside Montessori High School.
The "starting six" at Countryside Montessori High School. JEFF WILLHELM

It’s a year of significant milestones for Countryside Montessori School. The tri-campus is celebrating its 30th anniversary. The new head of school, Chuck Nusinov, takes the reigns after school founder Debby Haugh retires this summer. And in June, the school graduates its first senior class comprised of six students. A mix of school veterans and newbies, athletes and dedicated volunteers, “our seniors are as diverse as can be,” says Heide Putt, middle and high school administrator. “They have talents from being gifted academically to being talented in working with others or their hands. We are proud of them for that very reason.”Oliver CrawfordOliver is intrigued by tasks that involve working with his hands. The “shy” Belmont resident has attended Countryside for six years and when life gets stressful, he laces up his running shoes for nightly or weekend runs. Or, he’ll build things – something he’s enjoyed since age 5. “I’m 19 years old but I still play with Hot Wheels, I still play with Legos – I love to build (with) Legos, I love it.”At home, in his shop, tasks range from building replica models to small engine repair. His interests have led him to enroll in the Nissan Technical Institute program at Charlotte’s Universal Technical Institute. Classes begin Aug. 1. As a member of the school’s first graduating class, he knows that parents and teachers aren’t the only ones paying attention. “A lot of the little kids look up to us, so it inspires you to keep going,” he says. Sarah HalperinFor Sarah Halperin, 17, it’s not about where she’ll end up, but what she’ll share with people when she gets there. The avid reader and active volunteer has attended Countryside for 11 years. She plans to continue her volunteer work at college. “I see myself helping as many people as I can, volunteering with children and playing sports,” she says. “Montessorihas always given me an opportunity to do whatever I’ve been inspired by. I really like volunteering. I like seeing everybody’s faces when we help out. My parents have always volunteered and it’s just been in my life forever. It makes me feel good.”Her advice to underclassmen?“Be a part of everything,” she says. “If there is something the school doesn’t have, find other people that want the same thing and start it. Just throw yourself into the school because you won’t be disappointed.”Abbie HardingCharlotte’s Abbie Harding, 17, has attended Countryside since she was 2. She lettered in volleyball and basketball, but other passions include ballet and musical theater. Her favorite Christmas gift: tickets to Blumenthal’s Broadway Lights Series. College plans include studying history or urban studies – and getting involved in theater production on the side. “My Montessori education has allowed me to develop writing, research and study skills that will follow me throughout my formal education, but also helped me develop the intellectual curiosity to dive into various topics.”Harding considers herself and her fellow graduates pioneers.“In order to succeed where no one had gone before, we had to have a spirit that would help us figure out what high school should be,” she says. “With the help of dedicated teachers, we made it happen.”Lucas Huet-HudsonCharlotte’s Lucas Huet-Hudson considers himself an open-minded 18-year-old who believes people should strive to make a profound impact on whatever path they choose.He thinks people may not recognize his cultural background. He’s part Mexican. “But it plays a huge role in my life,” he says, especially when it comes to appreciating people and other cultures.A summer camp counselor at Countryside for five years, he takes his role seriously and tries to instill core values he’s learned at Montessori into his campers. This summer marks his 13th year attending the school’s camp. He’s already been accepted at UNC-Chapel Hill and Kansas University, but his future path isn’t set in stone. He’s sure his entire graduating class will succeed. “There’s no doubt we’ll each be successful in some respect,” he says. Sritarini RelangiIf Sritarini Relangi – “Tarini” for short”– could take a dream world tour, it would include stops in Latin America because she's taking Spanish, throughout Europe because of the history, and Paris, France, in particular, because of her interest in fashion.The 18-year-old from Huntersville has attended private schools in Boston, Louisiana and India, but this is her first and only year at Countryside. It’s possible she will one day attend medical school in India to study neurology (disorders of the nervous system) and/or psychology. Her varied interests include fashion, photography, dance, theater and violin. If she were writing the book of her future, it would include a chapter about her days as a student of Beauxbaton, a real-world magic school depicted in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” located near the city of Cannes in southern France.“I really like their outfits and they do this little dance and twirl their wands. I want to do it for one summer at least,” she says.Mary Jo RigneyMary Jo Rigney, a 17-year-old from Charlotte, can probably out-step any of her fellow graduates. She’s competed in Irish Dance for 11 years throughout the nation and has represented America seven times in the World Championships of Irish Dancing in Dublin. She’s not bad on the basketball court either. This year, she scored her 1,000th point in a game against another private school. But she has different plans for her future. “I see myself as an elementary school teacher,” she says. “Montessori has prepared me for (this role) because I have learned the importance of education in a young child’s life.”Being a part of the first senior class has impacted her life greatly.“I have learned so much about leaving a legacy and leadership,” says Rigney. “We feel obligated to be leaders and make important decisionsAlthough it feels like a lot of pressure, it’s an amazing opportunity for us. Not many people can say they were part of the very first graduating class of their high school. It’s an honor and I hope we have left a lasting impact on the Countryside community.”

About Countryside Montessori SchoolCountryside Montessori School’s educational philosophy is based on the scientific findings of Dr. Maria Montessori, the first woman in Italy to earn a medical degree. She studied and observed children and their capabilities of learning from their environment, people and hands-on materials. Countryside is the first Montessori high school in the state. The high school program was created one grade at a time, starting in 2007. Nearly 500 students attend the school.Locations:* Toddler-Kindergarten: 4755 Prosperity Church Road. 704-503-6000.* Grades 1-6: 9026 Mallard Creek Road. 704-549-4253.* Grades 7-12: 4125 Johnston Oehler Road.