Community Nursery School celebrates 75 years of learning

The year was 1938. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in his second term in the White House. World War II had not begun yet. The Great Depression raged on. The Yankees were the defending world champions in a stretch of four in a row. Gas was a lot less expensive than it is now. 

And a new school opened in Wilton.

Community Nursery School of Wilton recently celebrated its 75th anniversary with a party at Trackside Teen Center, followed by an open house. More than 120 alumni, friends and current families gathered as First Selectman Bill Brennan read a proclamation honoring the school.

The school’s home in Wilton Center sits on land donated by G. Evans Hubbard, founder of The Wilton Bulletin. Not coincidentally, the building is on Hubbard Road.

“We’re a play-based school, as opposed to a skill-based school,” said Penny Edwards, the interim director of Community Nursery School. “Everything we do here is play, and play is children’s work. That’s how they learn. I don’t think that philosophy has changed since the school started.”

Ms. Edwards should know a few things about the school. She arrived at Community in 1971 and soon became the director, a position she stayed in until retiring in 2006. But a phone call from school board President Kelly Flatt prompted her to return.

“I had a five-and-a-half-year sabbatical,” she said with a laugh. “But I wasn’t here when they built the school.”

It would be easy to dismiss that play-based teaching philosophy as not being conducive to learning, but there’s a method to that.

“They’re learning fine motor, gross motor, social skills, and that’s all sort of the man behind the curtain, where the teachers are orchestrating the school environment in which they play,” said Ms. Flatt. “But there are tools and materials and other things available to them that are chosen with purpose.

“To a lot of parents, myself included, it looks like they’re playing. But there’s something going on there.”

The school has three programs: the newly created twos, to go along with threes and fours, indicative of how many days the children are in the building. It is nonprofit, run by parents, specifically a board of current and former parents.

In November 1938, the school instituted a scholarship program, something that has continued to this day.

“This year, we have two scholarships,” Ms. Edwards said. “That’s been a really important part of our school. We used to actually bring families to Wilton from South Norwalk. The parents of the school drove them to and from. Now we seem to be getting families from the community, and that’s wonderful.”

The school remains popular, with classes buzzing with children. Ms. Edwards, Ms. Flatt, and Jamie Toohill, a board member who handles publicity, said that classes still have a few openings for the 2013-14 school year.

“We have limited seats available,” Ms. Toohill said.

“We had to look around and see what the community wanted,” said Ms. Flatt. “Everybody wants to get their kids in a twos program, so we had to readjust things and get the program off the ground.”

“We’ve had to walk the line between staying true to our play-based roots and staying relevant.”

The school has a solid reputation, with word-of-mouth providing stable advertising for 75 years. Students from years ago came back to celebrate the diamond anniversary. They still return to Wilton to visit, sometimes leaving notes on the front door to say hello.

“I would like to highlight our staff,” Ms. Edwards said. “For many years, as long as I’ve been here, our staff has been almost always parents of children who have attended the school.”

Like Ms. Flatt, Ms. Toohill has put children through Community. One son is a former student, currently in kindergarten, while her younger son is a current student. They debate whose school it actually is. Ms. Toohill and her husband chose to send their sons to Community because of advice they received.

“We were new to Wilton,” she said. “My husband’s friend recommended it. They said it’s a great place to meet other parents. It’s my home away from home.”

For Ms. Flatt, who had three children go through the school and one currently enrolled, she’s happy to sing the praises.

“It’s a special place,” she said. “It’s a place unlike any other. It’s a feeling that you feel like you’re at home. Parents get to know each other. Parents get to know the kids. The parents and kids become at home here. For people new to Wilton, it’s the start of a social outreach. There’s a sense of belonging when you’re here.”

Of course, security needs to be addressed, but that community feeling and the recognition of the various faces who visit the school gives the staff some relief.

“It’s something we think about all the time,” Ms. Edwards said. “We keep the doors locked from the outside.”

“Every face that should be here is recognizable,” Ms. Flatt added.

Even in the public schools, Community has a solid reputation.

“I have several friends that are kindergarten teachers, and they say our children come the best prepared because of the social skills,” said Ms. Edwards.

The relationship between the nursery school and the public schools is an important one, as most of Community’s students graduate to kindergarten at Miller-Driscoll.

“I think that’s something that has been a constant with us,” Ms. Toohill said. “Our director has always been with the kindergarten teachers to make sure that, as their curriculum evolves, we evolve and our children continue to be prepared.”

With the sounds of children laughing, singing, and buzzing just outside of Ms. Edwards’ office door, the three pondered the future of Community Nursery School.

“I think, as elementary school becomes more demanding, a nursery schools like ours will become more appealing because it’s such a short window of opportunity,” Ms. Flatt said. “I hope it lasts another 75 years.”

This special place is loaded with stories, including the one Ms. Edwards told about two former nursery school classmates attending the prom together. Thanks to their Wilton Center location, the school sends students on field trips to local merchants, such as the post office, the library, the florist, and the bank.

“It’s the best," Ms. Edwards said proudly before repeating herself. “It’s the best.”