The year was 1962, and Montgomery had just told her husband, Jim, that they needed to open their own school. “I was bouncing my beautiful six-month-old baby when I was blinded by the thought that in five short years she would be going to school,” she explains. At the time, the only options available in Ann Arbor were public and religious schools, and both were too structured for the former nun and teacher: she wanted a place that would “allow children to be themselves, free to explore their interests and develop into individuals who felt free in their own skin.”

Her husband agreed and urged her to begin planning immediately. She traveled to England to meet A.S. Neill, founder of Summerhill School in Suffolk. His 1960 book Summerhill had made the school a beacon for educators interested in freer, more democratic forms of education.

“Mr. Neill was my hero,” Montgomery says. “When I met him, I told him about my plans to start a school along the lines of Summerhill. He told me, ‘There is only one Summerhill. Don’t be a disciple of anyone—start the school that is inside you.'”

A $4,000 gift from Pat’s father allowed the couple to put a down payment on a small frame house on Jewett St. Clonlara School opened there in 1967 with eight students, two of them the children of the Montgomerys. The name honors her father’s Irish hometown.

“I remember that house very well,” says Montgomery’s daughter, Chandra Montgomery Nicol. “Every year Mother added a new grade level—and I was always in the oldest level.” Clonlara combined O’Neill’s methods with the educational philosophy clinical psychologist Haim Ginott outlined in his book Between Parent and Child. “Those books became my bible,” Montgomery recalls. “Children must always be treated with dignity, everyone should be listened to, everyone should have a voice. We must never deny or ignore a child’s feelings. Behavior alone is considered unacceptable—not the child. Children should be encouraged to do what they can for themselves, making choices within the safety of limits.”

When EMU students asked to student teach at Clonlara, the university informed them that they had to be supervised by someone with a doctorate. “‘You want a PhD? You’ve got it,’ I told them,” Montgomery recalls. She earned a PhD from Wayne State while continuing her teaching.

After a tragic school fire in Chicago convinced Michigan lawmakers to forbid schools from being housed in frame buildings, Clonlara moved its classrooms into two well-used portables obtained from Washtenaw Community College.

With its innovative approach attracting national and international attention, the school population peaked in 1975–76 with 114 students. A few years later, Montgomery helped launch the National Coalition of Alternative Community Schools, which grew to include nearly 400 schools. Yet today, Clonlara is the only one still operating.

It survived in part because in 1979, a family asked Montgomery to help them design methods and materials so they could teach their nine-year-old at home. She did—and almost immediately, Clonlara became a resource for homeschooling families.

“Mom was one of the first educators in the world with a PhD to say that homeschooling is legitimate and valid,” says Nicol. “She announced she would stand by these parents.” In 1985, Montgomery sued the Michigan Board of Education on behalf of homeschoolers, and won.

In 1997, when her foot went through the floor of one of the portables, Montgomery decided the time had come to build a facility as innovative as the school’s philosophy. One bank “turned me down flat when I told them I had no collateral,” she recalls. But Jim Miller of Comerica Bank agreed to lend them $1.2 million.

In 2005, Clonlara earned national accreditation, and in 2008 international accreditation. Nicol, meanwhile, had maintained her ties with the school. After earning her bachelor’s in German and master’s in natural resources, she moved to England, but returned to Ann Arbor when her mother began talking about transitioning out of full-time work and agreed to take over as the school’s interim executive director. “That was thirteen years ago,” she says dryly.

Clonlara has developed online offerings and opened international offices to support homeschoolers in Spain, Germany, Hungary, Costa Rica, Mozambique, and Portugal.

On-campus enrollment, however, has dropped significantly from its 1970s peak. This month, thirty students start class in grades K–12. These days, Nicol notes, charter schools offer a variety of tuition-free alternatives.

“We ran twenty-three full years in the red,” Nicol says. “My mother served as teacher, publicist, and executive director without a salary. My father owned the property. They never had big donors or an endowment. They mortgaged their home to give money to the school.”

Nicol wants to build enrollment back above 100. To that end, Clonlara recently reduced tuition; it now runs from $6,000 for grades K–2 to $17,000 for high schoolers. Homeschool programs are $825 to $1,200.

Pat Montgomery remains active in school matters but has devoted recent years to writing her memoir. Its title is based on her long-ago conversation with A.S. Neill: The School That’s Inside You.