“A lot of our parents don’t want their kids to leave.”
Story and photos by Jill Draper
Brianne Teevan-Bongiovanni was performing at The Second City theater and designing exhibits for the Chicago Children’s Museum when she learned about the Reggio Emilia Approach, an educational philosophy—somewhat like Montessori and Waldorf—that’s based on student-directed exploration and collaboration.
She fell in love with the idea “that each child is pure potential,” and sold everything she owned to move to a city of the same name in northern Italy. There, she studied the approach, learned to speak Italian and met her future husband. When she returned to Kansas City where she grew up (her family owns the Martin City Sports Complex), the recession was just beginning. It was not a great time to start a new venture, but her mother, Pamela Nigro, agreed to be a business partner and together they purchased a long-vacant restaurant at 400 E. 135th St. With the help of a grant from the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City, they turned it into a private Reggio school.
Bambini Creativi, Italian for “creative children,” opened in 2011 with 10 kids. Six years later Teevan-Bongiovanni has 13 employees and 92 students from more than two dozen ZIP codes. She began by offering preschool and kindergarten classes, later adding first and second grades. Now she’s in the middle of two construction projects. One is a new art studio at the front of the building, and another is a two-story addition at the back for future third, fourth and fifth-grade classes. The current art room will become a computer and technology lab. Eventually, she would like to extend classes through high school.
“A lot of our parents don’t want their kids to leave,” she says. “That’s why I’m expanding.”
The school is painted in cheerful colors from pink and orange to robin’s egg blue and lime green. Natural items like dried gourds, seashells, smooth stones and blocks of wood are scattered at play stations, and a mostly organic lunch is cooked daily in the kitchen, where children experience rotating duty as chef’s assistant by helping scoop, mix and chop food, fold table linens and clean up the dining room. A 1½-acre play yard contains grassy mounds with a tunnel, slide and treehouse.
Teevan-Bongiovanni, who graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute, admits that her school looks a bit more like a children’s museum than most, but says all Reggio facilities are designed to be whimsical and magical. It’s the program, though, that’s most important. Teachers have a second role as researchers, documenting each student’s development with notes, photos, art projects and bits of conversation recorded in a three-ring binder. The idea is to understand how an individual child learns and relates to other kids.
The school day includes 30 minutes of Italian lessons and frequent group projects. This month the older students are learning about reflection, refraction and related scientific concepts by constructing a spiral pattern on the floor using discarded CDs, recycled metal pieces, old keys, small jars and a broken disco ball—an assemblage they have dubbed “Light at Night City.” In addition to stations for art and science, there’s a place for acting, dancing and yoga.
At the heart of Bambini Creativi, though, is the concept of “amici” or friends.
“Our kids are learning all the time, but academics are such a small part of what I care about at this school,” says Teevan-Bongiovanni. “What’s most important is to be a compassionate place that teaches children to be ethical, caring and open-minded.”
She wishes the tuition could be less, but at $13,897 per school year for five days a week plus lunch, she says her price is “super-affordable” compared to other private schools. And there’s a message behind that fee.
“I charge exactly the same as what taxpayers pay to send their kids to public schools,” she says. “It’s a protest, in a way. There’s no excuse for Kansas City not to have great public schools, and I’m determined to do something about that.”
Teevan-Bongiovanni might even run for the Board of Education one day. Meanwhile, she has teamed up with a local tech company called Slcket and other volunteers to build maker spaces at inner-city elementary schools like Woodland at 1211 McGee St. Each space is an empty classroom equipped with building blocks, magnets, test tubes, art supplies, funnels, microscopes and such to form free-play areas for literacy, art, science, building and math activities.
She says her role at Bambini Creativi as owner/director and her work with the public schools are both an adventure in learning. “I don’t always know what I’m doing. It keeps me searching constantly,” she admits. “I just know that it’s an opportunity in a sad, scary world to create something beautiful.”