Adam Tomalty (left), an eighth-grader at Cornerspring Montessori School in Belfast, takes a pencil from Vito Scappaticci, a seventh-grader at the school who lives in Liberty and Montville. The students were working on a construction project. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — When the Cornerspring Montessori School in Belfast launched a middle school program two years ago, there was one challenge: There wasn’t any space for it.

But that’s changing now, thanks to a $300,000 building project underway.

Middle school students, who have been meeting this year at the First Church in Belfast, are looking forward to having their own dedicated building on the Cornerspring campus, according to Sue Beemer, head of school.

“It’s important to get our middle schoolers back on site,” she said. “And have them back with the larger school community.”

For her, the new middle school program and the new building are signs that interest is growing in Waldo County for the type of education that the Montessori school provides.

“There’s a strong need and interest among many families,” Beemer said.

The Cornerspring school was founded 20 years ago to provide a high-quality preschool program for area children. Over the years, the school has grown and changed, adding an elementary program in 2008 and then the middle school program, making it just the second Montessori school in the state to expand to that age group. The first was the Damariscotta Montessori School in Nobleboro.

In Belfast, the middle school program aims to foster self-confidence, independence and lifelong learning for the eight students who are currently enrolled.

Some of those goals were on display Wednesday afternoon, as the spring air was filled with the sounds of power tools and focused conversation as students buckled down to the task of finishing the school’s trash and recycling shed. Previously, the group had designed and built a model for the shed.

And even though they initially hung the finished door backward, so it didn’t quite fit, it was nothing they couldn’t figure out.

One of the students, Adam Tomalty, 14, an eighth-grader from Brooks who said his favorite subject is Latin, has been attending the private, nonprofit school since he was in preschool. He’s used to problem solving.

“I really like it a lot,” he said of the middle school program. “I think we get more outside time than other middle schools do. And I think it’s a more friendly school as well. I’m friends with pretty much everyone.”

Those are some of the qualities — lots of time in nature, friendliness — that Cornerspring aims to offer, Beemer said. And the school’s campus allows for plenty of time outside.

Just three and a half years ago, Cornerspring moved from its longtime home in a former MBNA building to its new digs on a wooded, 35-acre parcel on lower Congress Street. The highly energy efficient building offers the school’s 90 students more room to spread out and lots of opportunities to get outside.

But it’s already too small.

“We’re now outgrowing it,” Beemer said.

The school is a popular choice among many Waldo County families, which pay tuition to send their children there. For the next school year, rates range from almost $4,400 for half-day, three-day-a-week programs for toddlers to just over $9,500 for the full-time, 10-month middle school program.

School officials aim to keep tuition as low as possible, Beemer said, and provide financial aid to nearly 40 percent of students.

The new middle school building will be 1,000 square feet, or “just enough for them,” she said.

Still, even though the middle school students have not had a dedicated home, the last year has been a good one, their teachers said. After the pandemic began in March 2020, the school went remote. But since school began last September, they have been able to remain in-person all year. The students need to meet state standards, but the small class size means there’s space to be flexible and personal.

“We teach to where they are,” Susan Therio, who teaches science, math, citizen science and more, said. “I have eight kids and five different levels of math.”

The school also aims to help students become more independent and confident, as they work together on projects such as constructing the trash and recycling shed.

“A lot of students in public school aren’t given that much autonomy,” Diane Sternberg, who teaches subjects including English, social studies and Latin, said. “But that’s part of what makes the community strong.”