One day in 1981, Thelma Sophocleous walked into Raintree Montessori School in Lawrence to enroll her 3-year-old son, Andreas.
Little did anyone suspect at the time how that would be the start of a 31-year career organizing the library, typing forms and reports for the state, putting out the school newsletter and doing whatever else it took to keep the school running smoothly.
“There is no one quite like Thelma,” said Lleanna McReynolds, head of the school. “She has devoted her life to our school.”
Now, for the first time in more than a generation, Raintree officials are trying to figure out how all those things will get done when Sophocleous, who is now 77, finally retires at the end of this semester.
“What began as a part-time job cataloging the books in our library turned into a lifetime’s commitment,” McReynolds wrote in a tribute to Sophocleous. “It wasn’t long before she was organizing our lives.”
Every day this month, classrooms have been coming to her office to give her farewell gifts — handmade cards, bouquets of flowers, handmade paintings, even original performances created by the children themselves.
Sophocleous says she was drawn to Raintree from the early days of the school.
“Somebody recommended the school for my son when he was at the age to start, so I brought him to school. And because it was just a short time that he was here, I used to stay at a table writing letters. And one day the director said, ‘Will you help me with these papers?’ And I said OK. I started helping here, and helping with the library, and eventually I started working.”
But Sophocleous said it was the whole atmosphere of the school that kept her working for 31 years.
“It’s difficult to say, but the teachers are really special,” she said. “They love their profession, the method is very nice and the administration is excellent.”
Sophocleous came to Kansas from Argentina in the 1970s when she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study linguistics at Kansas University, where she eventually earned her master’s degree. At that time, Raintree was far outside the developed part of Lawrence on what is now Clinton Parkway.
When Sophocleous arrived, McReynolds recalls, the school had fewer than 100 students and could barely afford a typewriter. Today, it has around 480 students and has garnered national recognition.
Raintree is a private school founded on a method of teaching developed in the early 20th century by Italian physician Maria Montessori, who specialized in studying stages of child development.
“Montessori identified different ‘planes’ of development,” McReynolds explained, “and she said if you create the right environment for each of those planes of development, children will almost educate themselves. Einstein said, ‘I never teach my pupils; I only give them the optimum conditions in which to learn.’ So you create an environment based on those things and children become very self-reliant, responsible and focused.”
Raintree now offers classes from early preschool, including toddlers as young as 18 months, through sixth grade. McReynolds said the school is working on plans to expand into middle school.
During her career, Sophocleous saw all three of her own children go through the school. Now, one of her grandchildren is enrolled as a preschooler, and another grandchild will enroll in the spring.
Asked about her fondest memories, Sophocleous just smiled and recalled the things that occur every day. “I think of the children coming to the office and getting papers and saying funny things,” she said.
Her last day will be Wednesday.