With a name like Innovation Montessori Ocoee, the school is serious about its commitment to inspiring innovative thinking. The giant solar flower installed on the ground near the primary campus is visible proof of that.
The 16-foot “flower” is actually made up of 12 solar panels and produces enough energy to power a house. Its location gives students visible access to it as a learning tool.
“The flower itself it rises in the morning, tracks the sun across the sky and closes at night,” said Sherilyn Moore, president of the school’s board of directors. “That’s the most effective way because it tracks the sun. It’s also a cool feature and a talking point with the children.”
A future program expansion will increase the coverage to power the entire campus.
“Montessori’s education philosophy goes beyond academics, and one thing Montessori is very passionate about is environmentalism, so our school will be energy independent,” said Cathy Tobin, assistant principal.
The SmartFlower Solar flower is the result of nearly two years of discussions the board of directors had when moving from Winter Garden to Ocoee and building a new campus.
“When we were building the school, we were endeavoring to build the most environmentally friendly school that we could on our budget,” Moore said. “We talked about solar. … We discussed having one tiny piece of solar in an energy garden – one kinetic energy piece, a wind piece and a solar piece.”
The board met Stephen Facella —nicknamed Solar Steve — when he spoke to the group about introducing a solar program.
“He actually introduced himself to us before his kids came to the school,” Tobin said. “He just wanted to share solar power. He’s on a mission. He thinks it’s important to the health of the planet. He knew the connection between Montessori and environmentalism, and he heard we were building a new campus.”
Facella, who attended a Montessori school as a child, said he understands and believes in the Montessori Method and its focus. His home has run on solar energy for several years.
He approached the school and said to the board: “’You cannot have this brand-new school and be powering this school with fossil fuels and teaching peace education.
“I said I would do anything I could to make sure the school is solar run,” he said.
Facella connected with WattSun Energy, in Windermere, and Alternative Energy Services, both of which agreed to install the system at cost.
He introduced the board to First Green Bank, in Clermont, a bank dedicated to helping companies go green, and the school was able to obtain a loan to turn the entire facility solar.
The solar flower works in conjunction with a 28kW solar system on the roof of the school’s primary building, as well as a 37kW system on the main campus building.
The primary building's system is made up of 106 solar panels and two inverters that capture and create clean renewable energy from the sun equal to more than 43,000 kWh per year. The main campus building’s system has 128 solar panels and one large capacity inverter that captures and creates clean renewable energy from the sun equal to more than 50,000 kWh per year.
“The reason the flower exists is so the kids could see it in art form,” Facella said.
He now has one child at the school, and a second will start attending next year.
The school held its first Arteco festival last month, and students performed and displayed artwork.
The event allowed students and staff to showcase the solar flower and other environmentally friendly aspects of the campus. Innovation Montessori was able to save about 250 trees at the front of the property, and those that couldn’t be saved were repurposed into benches, outdoor classrooms and mulch. It also operates two irrigation systems, one from the well that was already on the property and the other out of a pond.
WattSun Energy is taking the school’s solar program a step further and is making a donation to the school for every Innovation family that switches to solar.
It’s all part of making students aware of their environment and that their actions do make a difference.
“The flower, using that as a teaching tool, saving the planet, of course is a goal, but showing the students (in) real time the impact these things can make is really, really important,” Moore said. “In having Innovation in our name, we try to inspire these kids any way we can.”
“The land is where our roots are. The children must be taught to feel and live in harmony with the earth.”
Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.