It was a place where a window to the world was an actual window.

A place where a handle was something to hang onto and didn’t involve a hashtag.

A place where screen time meant sifting sand and soil through wire mesh.

And where tweets were things heard outside.

Times have changed dramatically since Lincoln's first Montessori school opened in 1969.

And Thursday is the final day of classes for Lincoln Montessori School. Founders, owners and directors Larry and Mary Verschuur are retiring.

Larry is 75, Mary is 72.

They have run Montessori schools for the past 50 years, starting in Omaha and Bellevue and coming to Lincoln at the urging of parents.

They broke the news to parents last fall that the Lincoln school would close, saying they were ready to "adopt a lifestyle more compatible with their ages.”

“We are ready not to be responsible for anybody except for ourselves,” Larry said.

The couple decided to close the school instead of finding new leadership, so potential new owners can start fresh.

"It frees those who want to fill the niche occupied by LMS to bring ... their own understanding and interpretation of the Montessori philosophy with its unique and lasting benefits of healthy relationships and positive learning environment,” they wrote in a newsletter to parents.

Four other Montessori schools operate in Lincoln, each offering a child care component in addition to the Montessori educational program.

Lincoln Montessori School always ran as a school, half-day classes for  children ages 2½ through kindergarten.

"We started with three families,” said Larry, who estimates 600 to 700 students have attended the school over the past 4½ decades.

A  significant number of those were second-generation students who learned from the same teachers their parents had, he said.

While the Montessori approach remains unchanged, the world is a far different place from what it was in 1969, the Verschuurs said.

“Children’s behavior and parental expectations have been affected by the rapid emergence of the digital/virtual world and by demographic shifts which are reshaping the image of family and relationships,” they wrote in their newsletter.

In 1969, parents who sent their kids to Montessori school were kind of new-age liberals looking for something other than the status quo. Back then, there were few preschools and even fewer day cares.

“In the '60s, parents wanted kids to experience things so they could decide who they want to be,” Larry said. “Now it’s through the culture that parents tell us who they want their child to be.

“In the '60s, people had to seek us out. They were taking a risk."

Added Mary: “Now people who come to us have not looked at what we are doing or why we are doing it. They’ve heard it’s a good program with good results, and that their children will do well in school and in college. Many don’t understand the philosophy.”

The philosophy is the brainchild of Maria Montessori (1870-1952). She was Italy’s first female doctor and developed hands-on, self-guided and individually paced learning plans working with institutionalized special needs children.

The basic premise is this: Children love to learn. And when allowed to use their senses to figure things out on their own, with simple guidance from teachers rather than rigid lessons plans, they flourish.

Georgia Glass had just finished an eye-opening year as a high school teacher when she heard about the method. In Montessori, she found a kindred spirit in what she believed education to be. She became Montessori-certified and earned a master's degree in education. About the time she finished school, the Lincoln school was looking for a director.

Glass worked at the school from the mid-1970s to the mid-'80s.

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“What is meaningful about Montessori is it is really child-focused. The environment is prepared for the child,” Glass said.

“I felt like we were providing an environment for children where they could really flourish and grow at their own pace and at their own level. We do not go in with a preconceived notion of what they need to accomplish, it’s what they are ready to accomplish. Montessori is designed to accommodate different needs and experiences at different times in their lives. It all just made sense to me.”

Julie Brittenham’s daughter Carly, 6, has been at Lincoln Montessori School since she was 2½ and is a member of its last kindergarten class.

“I remember the first time I walked into Lincoln Montessori School," said her mother. "It was such a drastic difference from day care and preschool. It was calming, organized, open to nature and just had a very different feel than the fast pace of society with overstimulated everything.

“When children walk through those doors into the learning space, everything changes. They instantly become calm, focused and respectful. What Larry and Mary create is an environment where children are allowed to learn and explore in their own way and find things that interest them, yet in a very controlled environment. It gives them freedom within a very defined structure ... to explore and make mistakes and learn from their mistakes on their own.”

The school's classroom looks much the same as it did when it opened near 40th and Van Dorn streets in 1971, its second location. No computers, smart phones, think pads or the like.

“Children this age learn through their senses and bodies, and they don’t do that with technology,” said Larry. “Technology is OK later, but not at this age. Children are being exposed to these thing at home, and we have to sort of work around it.

“Change is inevitable, but we find that today, the original way still works, but (it's) much harder to get there.”

The Verschuurs are saying goodbye to the little school they built at 2615 Austin Drive. The building, with its three sides of floor-to-ceiling windows, will be converted into a regular home. The Verschuurs, who once planned to live there, found a perfect home a few blocks away, so someone else will make it theirs.

But Lincoln Montessori School always will hold a special spot in the hearts of hundreds of students and parents.

“When I talk to parents of children that were in the school when I was there -- and those children are now adults -- they say to me, 'This is what I see in my child that I know was a product of Montessori School,'" Glass said. “That is validation. That is how you know it is worthwhile.”

Brittenham said she and Carly get weepy just thinking about saying goodbye.

“It just feels like the end of something so special to us,” Brittenham said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7217 or eandersen@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSerinandersen.

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