First Class Montessori School founder Evelyn Hibbler lets them eat cake in celebration of the school's founding 28 years ago. (Courtesy photo)

When a private, Montessori-based school turns 28, a celebration – complete with cake, games and lots of fun – becomes the order of the day as was the case recently at 1st Class Montessori School.

“It’s been a long road, but God was with me every step of the way,” said a reflective Evelyn Hibbler, who had been a teacher in Memphis City Schools for years when she became intrigued with the Montessori philosophy of teaching and later founded 1st Class Montessori.

“I searched and found the perfect location on Peabody, a large home on a corner lot. But there were things required of me by the city and the land use control board before I could start my school. The city council had to approve it. I remember Shep Wilbun was city council chairman at the time. He was so supportive and encouraging.”

One of the most difficult tasks was having to go door-to-door in the Midtown community and get residents to sign a petition for Hibbler’s school.

Performing at Hamilton Middle School as “Miss Classy,” First Class Montessori School founder Evelyn Hibbler relishes opportunities to teach. (Courtesy photo)

“It was myself and a white teacher,” she recalled. “We went all through Annesdale knocking on doors. I introduced myself and explained that I had plans to open a Montessori school in the neighborhood. There were some doors slammed in my face. I remember this very elderly, white woman said, ‘We don’t need you here, and you know why.’

“It was discouraging at times, but I couldn’t let that stop me. I kept knocking on doors and greeting them with kindness. Pretty soon, I had enough signatures.”

In 1991, 1st Class Montessori opened with great fanfare. Classes soon filled to capacity, and a waiting list quickly formed. In 2009, Hibbler sought to duplicate that success by opening a 1st Class Montessori in Cordova. Then-Mayor Dr. Willie W. Herenton was on hand.

“I’ve been knowing Evelyn a long time,” Dr. Herenton told the gathering. “And when she says she’s going to do something, you can just look for it because she’s definitely going to do it. Evelyn wanted to open that first school, and she did. She wanted to open a second school, and here we are.”

Hibbler’s daughter, Erin Parrish, trained over the course of a summer to take the reins of the Memphis location.

“I loved teaching at our school, but I started to feel that there may be more opportunities in the public school system to advance,” said Parish. “Because of our small staff, I didn’t feel there was much room for advancement. I was actually weighing other options when I was given the opportunity to become the school’s administrator. It’s been 10 years now, and it’s been wonderful.”

Cordova completed the last of 10 academic sessions before closing its doors this summer.

“I’m in my 66th year, and there are other dreams I would like to see come into fruition,” Hibbler said. “The day-to-day operations  of the Cordova school was taking up so much time and energy that I felt my music and my ministry were suffering. So after much prayer, I knew it was time to close the doors and take a new direction this year.”

Hibbler says more time will be spent in ministry as well as promoting her children’s songs. She has been a licensed minister for five years.

Students at Hibbler’s middle school alma mater, Hamilton Middle School, recently were entertained and inspired with original songs performed by Miss Classy, a character created by Hibbler. She wrote and produced the recordings to teach pre-schoolers their A,B,Cs, numbers and other basics.

“It’s important to have a dream for your life,” Hibbler told the students. “And you have to study hard and get a good education. Don’t just become an auto mechanic. Open your own auto shop and be your own boss.

“Whatever it is you want to do, you can accomplish it just like I did. … There are big things ahead for you. We are all very proud of you, and we love you.”