Founder’s presence still alive at Miss Selma's School
December 3-9, 2018
By Jay Edwards
Over a half century ago a Little Rock teacher named Selma Ratley was in search of the perfect kindergarten. She believed that high-quality, early childhood education, fostered by love and enthusiasm, was the right combination for success. Her philosophy was simple – “every child can succeed.”
Ratley felt so strongly about it that in 1956 she decided to go out on her own and open Miss Selma’s School, with a first class of ten students, made up of four and five-year-olds.
“My grandfather’s philosophy that he passed on to my mother was, ‘If you are going to work hard, work hard for yourself,’” said Robin Smith, Selma Ratley’s daughter who now owns and is the principal of Miss Selma’s School.
In May of 1957, when her first graduating class received their diplomas, Ratley’s dream had become reality and over the next few years her vision for the school continued to grow. She moved her classroom into a building on Cantrell Road near Mississippi, where McDonald’s now sits.
In 1970, Ratley’s sister-in-law Jean Harkey came on board and another house nearby was rented out on nearby “T” Street for a first grade classroom. Over the next ten years, she continued to add elementary grades and because they needed more space for the new classrooms, she continued to purchase houses on “T” as well as adding on to her existing ones.
In 1973, daughter Robin joined the faculty and in 1981, curriculum for two and three-year-olds was added. Since then, Miss Selma’s enrollment has continued to grow, and today they proudly include many third-generation students. “It is always such a great honor when former graduates walk through our doors and share their favorite memories and allow us to delight in their success,” Smith says.
In 1989 Smith and her husband Mike bought the school, and she took over as principal. Today the school begins for children at age two and goes through the sixth grade, with a student body of well over 300.
When you first see the campus you might think you’re driving into a peaceful neighborhood cul-de-sac. They physically moved the original school building just a little ways from that first spot on Cantrell in 1988, when McDonald’s bought the location.
“We were able to acquire these properties over the years, which have served us well,” Smith says.
She says they have a commitment to keep class sizes small, which they’ve been able to achieve. “Our faculty knows the importance of one-on-one instruction and we strive to teach and develop the total child,” says Smith. “Our academic curriculum is strong and we offer an impressive list of extra curricular activities.”
Just like in those beginning years, they still call themselves family, which is not only evident from the closeness of the children, teachers and parents, but also when you see that Smith’s two daughters are now involved. Piper Keizer is Smith’s oldest and teaches the three-year olds. Her sister Molly Querdibitty works in the office and is in charge of aftercare, hiring, and scheduling. “Molly is all over the place, stepping in where needed,” Smith says.
Miss Selma’s family is now in its fourth generation, with Molly’s oldest daughter June enrolled. Her full name is Selma June. Molly’s younger daughter is named Price. And Piper had her first child this year, also a girl, who they named Mary Robin.
Smith and Vice Principal Alana Reed both agree the sense of family at the school is a priority and seems to come naturally. Reed has been with Miss Selma’s since the ‘70s. “My mother was the librarian,” Reed says. “Then later I became a teacher here and taught both Piper and Molly. Robin taught them both, as well.”
Like all schools throughout the country, Miss Selma’s has seen and adapted to technological advances that start these days before kids first come to school.
“We start kids at three-and-a-half on computers,” Smith says. “This past year was the first time that they sat down in January and went right to the screen, ignoring the mouse. Because at that age they are already used to the tablets they get from their parents. They all tried touching the screen. They had to be trained to use a mouse.”
The goal of giving each child the best chance to develop academically begins at the school with two-year olds and continues through the sixth grade. “We want them to have a strong foundation in reading, phonics, math, science and history,” Smith says. “It is established in the two-year old program and is emphasized through all grade levels.”
“We have such wonderful teachers who are very enthusiastic,” Reed says. “And they stay with us a long time. We have very little turnover, which is a blessing. The kids just adore them.”
And things don’t end when school lets out. Smith says after school activities include basketball skills, piano, violin and a chess club. There is also cheerleading from first grade through sixth and a Spirit Squad for kindergarten. “Anyone who wants can participate,” she says.
“And approximately four times a year, we take the children to the Arts Center, to the Children’s Theater.”
The school has come far since those early beginnings in the little house on what was then the outskirts of town. And everything it is today grew from Selma Ratley’s love of children and her enthusiasm for learning. Even though her health declined in 1995, she was still a constant fixture at the school, making sure all “her children” were getting what they needed. She passed away in 1997, but according to a September 2017 story in Hillcrest Life, “her spirit lives on in the school – perhaps literally. Over the years there have been a number of what they call, ‘Miss Selma sightings.’ If Selma is still visiting and watching over the school, it’s because of her love for children and the wonderful school she founded 61 years ago lives on.”
To learn more about Miss Selma’s School call 225.0123, or visit online at missselmasschool.com
1. Robin Smith (middle), principal and owner of Miss Selma’s School in Little Rock is proud to have her daughters – Molly Querdibitty (left), and Piper Keizer (right), with her at the helm. The school has been all in the family since Smith’s mother, Selma herself, opened the school in the ‘50s. (Photos by Becca Bona)
2. Pre-kindergarten students participate in their annual Thanksgiving Celebration at Miss Selma’s School on Nov. 16, 2018.
3. The children provide entertainment via song and perform for their parents and teachers.
4. Parents are invited to share a meal with their children at Miss Selma’s as part of the Thanksgiving Celebration.