For almost 70 years, Westchester Parents’ Nursery School (WPNS) has been an integral part of the community for many local families. A cooperative, parent participation preschool, WPNS unites students, parents and teachers together in the classroom, providing an environment that encourages a love of learning, respectful communication and community. As a play-based preschool, importance is placed on creativity and flexibility, where playing and exploring are just as important as learning the ABCs and the learning environment is structured around the unique needs of each individual child.
“The way we work with kids is all very individualized and child-centered,” says Joyce Woodruff, director of WPNS. “Each kid doesn’t fit in one philosophy.”
But now, the year ahead for WPNS is uncertain: by the end of this coming June, WPNS will have to leave their space at the Congregational Church of the Messiah on Manchester Avenue, which has housed the school for almost 40 years. Their landlords plan to repurpose the space, having chosen not to renew their lease. Though a new location has not yet been established, members of the school are determined to band together to find a new home, and the tight-knit nature of the WPNS community makes the goal promising.
Part of that tight-knit nature springs from the parent involvement at WPNS. As a co-op, parents are required to work at the preschool up to four days per month. Parents help lead activities, assist the teachers and supervise projects. Parents are also required to attend at least two parent education meetings a year, fulfill 25 service hours to help with campus upkeep and attend a monthly membership meeting. The robust parent involvement has families often making lifelong friendships with one another and helps lead to a sense of “ownership” in WPNS. However, as a co-op, the preschool is not “owned” by anyone in particular, but is instead held in trust by the members of the WPNS community who decide how the school will operate.
“A co-op school is as much a school for your child as it is for you. You work in it, it belongs to you, you give it energy and your ideas,” said Woodruff. “You, the parent, help to shape it into whatever it becomes.”
With the help of parents working in the classroom, WPNS has historically been able to maintain lower tuition rates than any other preschool in the area. The school has also been able to offer classes to the community at no cost, which include specialized parent education classes that offer techniques and insights into parenting and a kindergarten forum for families to learn about school choices in the community.
Approximately 6,000 families have come through WPNS since opening in 1950, and for many, participating in the classroom feels more like a joy than a requirement. For Fiona Godschalk, who moved to California from Belgium a decade ago, her involvement with her three children at WPNS from 2007-2015 cultivated an extended family.
“It was my first village when I moved to California,” Godschalk says. “I had the benefit of being very involved, and it was fun for us and made it so the kids had the family we didn’t have.”
The term “village” is encapsulating of the community that the school has fostered over the years, where parents and children remain close and connected years after their time at WPNS.
“[WPNS] is not a ‘drop-off’ type place,” says Sue Gwin, a recently retired WPNS teacher and parent, whose two sons attended WPNS in the 90s. “My sons have made lifelong friends from starting at WPNS. They learned so much as a play-based school being able to play and experiment, and I made lifelong friends with the parents because it’s such a family-oriented school.”
Woodruff wants the community to know that although WPNS will no longer be at its current location after June, it will continue to thrive in one form or another. Members of the community can help by providing any viable leads for a new location. There is also a Gofundme.com page where people can donate to help the school secure a new home, help with any necessary construction costs and to help offset the increased rent prices in the neighborhood that are making it difficult to find a new facility in the Westchester area. To operate, the school needs a space that is approximately 1,250 square feet inside and 3,750 square feet outside. Their wish list includes lots of parking and room for a garden. So far, WPNS has reached out to Emerson Adult School seeking rental space, as well as approached Councilmember Mike Bonin’s office.
“We have a trickle effect,” Woodruff explains. “Everything we do here goes into a child’s next journey of where they’re going to land in elementary school. This is where parents learn to work—teachers can’t do it on their own.”
Woodruff sees the challenge of finding a new home as a positive next chapter for WPNS rather than a setback from all the work they’ve accomplished so far in their 60-plus years of instilling a love of learning in children and working with families. She hopes that when the school does find its new home, they can expand their parent education classes and make parent involvement even more flexible and attainable. She says everything will eventually fall into place, but the tight bond of the WPNS community and the philosophy of the school will remain intact regardless of where the new physical space is.
“We’re hopeful that with the help of the community we’ve lovingly served for decades, that we’ll find the perfect place for Westchester Parents’ Nursery School to continue to help local families thrive,” said Woodruff. “This school is tiny, but it’s mighty.”
By Sarah Ahern.
Posted February 2018.