March 27, 2016
BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
If life is all about crossing bridges, students at Chicago’s St. Chrysostom’s Day School are guided across that first bridge from home to the world around them by one of the country’s finest and most experienced educators, Day School Headmistress Mary Ellen Christy. For over forty years, she has maintained goal that “children skip down the street to our school because they are happy to be coming here.” She herself admits still getting excited to enter the school’s doors for cherished traditions like reading stories to the classrooms, making gingerbread houses with the students and their families during the winter holidays, and joining her faculty in choosing Halloween costumes to wear each October.
Asked by St. Chrysostom’s Church to found a school on its premises in 1973, the Day School is a key part of the church’s life and Chapel services are held at the school once a week. From that day over four decades ago, the student body has grown from 27 children to 160 today. It is her respect for the preschool years and her sense of the importance of reaching children with thoughtful education at such an early age that set her apart in the most wonderful way.
“The preschool years should create an opportunity to explore the child’s own curiosity and to develop a strong sense of self. It is all about getting ready. The children really want to fix things; they are so natural and whole at this age. Someone said that small children are human beings as God wants everyone to be.”
It is this understanding of children and the nurturing, engaging environment that she and her staff have become so known for.
“Children are natural scientists. We recently read that whales are 150 feet long so they ran string through the school to see just how long they are. They were also thrilled to hear that a whale’s heart is the size of a small car.”
Encouragement and community are what makes the school so special and there is such a warmth that Mary Ellen brings to make this possible. It should come as no surprise to anyone that knows her or has been a part of the Day School, that it has such an active alumni association. Events they sponsor often involve bursts of laughter about their happy first school memories. Mary Ellen often runs into alumni at airports and other places all across the country and somehow still remembers all their names!
This sense of family is something so important to her, and she really stresses how crucial the parent and teacher partnership is:
“We have the responsibility to help parents make the correct choices, which is sometimes hard because we are dealing with someone so little and vulnerable, and so loved.”
On April 21, the Day School is holding the Inaugural Legacy Luncheon Lecture at the Racquet Club in honor of a former Day School parent, Courtney Kyte Plandowski, wife of Mark Plandowski, who was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer six weeks after the birth of her son Harvey. Courtney sadly lost her battle with cancer in 2015 and the series, planned by family members, several of her closest friends, and Day School teachers, was created in honor. The event has already been met with enthusiastic responses, which Mary Ellen credits to what a wonderful woman Courtney truly was.
“She fought the disease for three years, but continued to be primarily recognized not as a cancer patient, but as Harvey’s informed, skilled, and exceptionally involved Mother. She was loving, warm, obviously beautiful, and always reached out of herself to help others. We wanted it to be as if Courtney was involved in the planning process because she had prepared so well before Harvey’s birth by extensive reading on being a great parent.
“To choose the topic for our inaugural lecture, we went to Courtney’s own bookshelf. Our speaker is Dr. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist who wrote Brain Rules and Brain Rules for Baby, which Courtney had read. Speaking on The Parenting Brain, he will focus on how the brain sciences influence the way we teach our children. The outpouring of gifts to the Day School in memory of Courtney has been so outstanding that we will be able to continue this lecture series in her honor for many years using her favorite books on children as our topics.”
Mary Ellen has spoken at educational conferences around the country and completed two terms on the board of the National Association of Episcopal Schools. Colleagues and friends are forever encouraging her to write about her experiences and she promises she will one day. Such wonderful stories abound!
“I frequently read to the students and, one day, chose a book about a hedgehog going to outer space. Little children know the names of the planets by colors or numbers of rings. I asked them what their favorite planet is and one little girl said, ‘Santa Monica.’ She said you could recognize it by the great big pier on it. I remember hearing another little girl volunteer to loan her box of Crayolas when she heard her babysitter wanted to dye her hair. They are always wanting to volunteer information and be of help.”
Known for her wisdom, beauty, and sense of humor, Mary Ellen finds her days filled with parent and teacher conferences, classroom observation, work on the tremendously successful Day School Auction, and networking with other area educators. She always finds time for a call from a concerned parent with a problem about a child of any age. Like so many other grateful adults across the country, Mary Ellen’s own children Brooks Christy, Lindsay Amborski, and Kate Christy Anderson remember their days as students at the Day School with great joy. And like so many graduates, their own children are attending. We know with certainty Ellen Amborski, daughter of Lindsay and D.J., and Mary Ellen’s first grandchild, skips happily there each day as will her little sister Jane who enters this fall. It will be in the blink of an eye that her newest grandchildren – twin sons soon to be born to youngest daughter Kate and her husband Eric – will follow in their mother’s, aunt’s, cousins’, and uncle’s footsteps before them towards the welcoming doors of the Day School.