CHELSEA — Jen Cousins and Carrie Gervais never imagined their home-based preschool would one day become a pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school with about 80 students.

The directors of the Stepping Stones Montessori School are celebrating 10 years since their school’s humble beginnings in Gervais’ kitchen.

The campus now spans two acres with more than 6,000 square feet of classroom space and serves student from as far away as Lewiston, Fayette and Damariscotta.

“The growth of the school has been both intentional and natural,” Gervais said. “We had an end in mind our second year when we decided to expand past kindergarten. Although we did some advertising, we let the success of individualized, mastery-based education speak for itself and enrollment grew steadily over time.”

Stepping Stones is one of four Montessori schools in Maine to offer programs for students through eighth grade. Gervais said it is a progressive Montessori school, which typically are thought of as pre-schools and kindergartens. She said the school had enough seventh and eighth graders in 2010 to add a middle school program.

The program started with eight students and comprises three components: Academic rigor, apprenticeship and diversity.

The Montessori method includes a wide range of hands-on materials for younger students and a blend of new materials and instructional strategies in combination with the materials originally developed by founder Maria Montessori.

She said the school puts a high priority on in-depth history, geography and science studies, starting in pre-school. For instance, every week students observe real plant and animal specimens.

Chris Simpson, who teaches the seventh and eighth grade students, said he is pleased with the results of the apprenticeship program that the school started last year. As part of the apprenticeship component, one day per week students pursue individual interests, often in the community. He said examples of student apprenticeship topics include pottery, forensic science, film-making, cartography, alleviating poverty in Mexico and Maine Guide activities.

Simpson said becoming an apprentice in an area of interest gives teens meaning, occupies their unstructured time and allows them to explore possible future vocations.

“It’s fun to watch the process evolve,” Simpson said. “Some students know right away what they want to do for their apprenticeship activity, but others wrestle with it for awhile. After selecting an apprenticeship topic, they jump into it energetically.”

Last year’s apprentice presentations included an off-site demonstration plowing a field with draft horses, originally choreographed tap dances, an exhibition of student-made pottery, the screening of a student-made documentary film, a Power Point presentation of a trip to Mexico and performance of original musical compositions.

He said the presenters were clearly proud of their accomplishments and each student learned from classmates’ experiences. Django Pignatello, 13, of Whitefield, said he loves outdoor activities and is an apprentice at the Bowdoin Outing Club.

Django said he has gone kayaking and participated in teaching a home school group how to use a compass and bow drill — a primitive fire-making technique that uses friction and consists of a spindle, hearthboard, bow and bearing block.

“I’m very glad to be able to do this,” Django said. “It’s a very good way to get people out in the real world and see what it’s like and try some stuff and see what you might like to do in the future.”

Tessa Gervais, 14, of Chelsea, Carrie Gervais’ daughter, has taken on a community project to raise money with her artwork for a Mexican orphanage.

“Last year I went to Mexico with my mother and visited the orphanage,” Tessa said. “I love helping people who truly need it and I love art. I just combined to two things I love to do most.”

Mechele Cooper — 621-5663

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