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Petaluma Profile: Teacher Andrée Young makes educational magic in an old red barn

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Falling in love can be like seeing the world in a whole new sparkly way, through someone else’s beautiful eyes. When you talk to Andrée Young, you get the feeling that she experiences that, the thrill of falling in love, every day.

As director and founder of Red Barn Montessori (www.redbarnmontessori.org), Young experiences her days through the lens of some of the freshest eyes in town — those belonging to toddlers and preschoolers. As she moves around her classroom — and the magical gardens and playgrounds she has created (with a lot of help from a passionate group of parents, artists and other teachers) - she points out details that make a person feel as though they’ve just stepped into an animated Disney film.

For example, a hummingbird has constructed its tiny. intricate nest on the tip of a privet tree branch that hangs eye-level outside the classroom’s back door. A few feet away, a pair of quail have nested in that wild strawberry patch, where they hatched 18 tiny eggs under the watchful and respectful eyes of the children. There’s a fox who regularly visits with her two kits, a couple of blue jays who would eat from your hands if you’d let them, and many other creatures, who gather around and build homes all around a place that most animals, especially the shyer ones, would normally flee — a children’s playground.

There are animals inside the classroom also, all named by the little students.

There’s a bearded dragon named Ozzy, two fire-bellied frogs named Toad and Otter, a pair of parakeets (Lilly and Periwinkle), and a goldfish named Perseverance. The inside of the classroom is colorful but orderly. Boots are lined up carefully under cubbies, and various projects have been neatly put away on trays and placed side by side on shelves. Tiny chairs are set around little circular tables, pushed in and ready for tomorrow’s work. There are no scraps of paper littering the floor — no dried-out glue sticks missing their caps. It’s immaculate, but not militantly so.

It feels really good to be in this room.

If the chairs were bigger, one would imagine nursing a cappuccino sitting here for an afternoon.

But this is an environment made especially for the young and tiny. Driving down Bodega Avenue, right around Middle Two Rock Road, you’d never know the school existed, set back off the road in a little red barn. So how does a school like this come to be? One of the answers is Young, who helped found the school 13 years ago, and now serves as its director and head teacher.

Young grew up in San Rafael.

As a student at Terra Linda High, she gravitated towards anything arty — theater, painting, drawing. She thought about going into commercial art but her beloved teacher, Jack Hale, encouraged her to find something that allowed her to use all her skills and interests. And, she allows, deep down, she’s known she wanted to be a teacher from the time she was a child.

After graduation, Young headed to the University of Northern Colorado, because it had a good reputation as a teaching school, and she had a favorite aunt who lived in the area. It was her first time away from California and she loved it. It was there that she met her husband of 42 years, David Young.

Young says that, while in grad school, at the ripe age of 20, she found herself having to grow up fast. A relative, struggling with addiction, left her 2-year-old son on the young student’s doorstep.

So, she and her husband adopted and raised him.

“The professors allowed him to come to school with me,” she says today, noting that the kindness of those strangers allowed her to care for her new unexpected son and get an education at the same time. “I always had very good experiences with education all the way through,” she points out. “My teachers were always very human and inspiring to me, so it’s no wonder I got into teaching.”

After 10 years in Colorado (and the birth of their daughter), Young’s husband got a job with (now defunct) radio station KTOB and the family moved to Petaluma.

Young worked various jobs — in a commercial art office, at a preschool, and waiting tables. Her daughter had attended Montessori school in Colorado, and when Young temporarily put her daughter in a regular school, the girl hated it. That led Young to start thinking about Montessori education, eventually prompting her to go back to school to get certified.

She first spent 20 years teaching at a local Montessori school, but problems led to a rupture and not a little drama. When Young ended up leaving the job she thought she would have the rest of her life, seven families and her assistant went with her.

Those seven families encouraged Young to start a school.

“I said I don’t know how to start a school but let’s see what happens,” she says. When she found the little red barn, she and those families knew their dream school would become material reality. Young says that among the seven families, there is a firefighter, a lawyer, an artist, a nurse and an electrician — among other talented people. And they all worked together to create this place.

That was 13 years ago.

“What you see now is this beautiful gem that has transpired from the dedication and love of the teachers and parents,” Young says. “The families are involved with taking care of the grounds, hauling bark, hauling in straw, they do it all. We wanted a school that was not just where you drop off your kids.”

What’s next?

“I plan to stay here until I can’t walk anymore,” she laughs. “We all work together. When I’m done, I’ll pass it on to a Montessori teacher who is equally passionate.”

Looking around the grounds, Young remarks, “Out of the ashes came the most lovely place.”

(Send a comment to Arline Klatte at Arline@aklatte.com)