on the occasion of its 25th anniversary (1998)
This year The Meetinghouse preschool in Marlboro, Vermont celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary. This milestone is testimony to the hundreds of parents who have come together since 1973 to support this school and entrust their children to its teachers.
More than 300 preschool students have graduated from Meetinghouse since it first began. Some of those alumni were on hand for the anniversary dinner held this April at the Colonel Williams Inn in Marlboro.
Hannah Van Loon was a student in the first class to pass through the school, and remembers it as a safe, and comfortable place, “I still remember building with those red and white cardboard blocks,” says twenty-eight year old Hannah, who now works as a paraeducator in Brattleboro.
Simon Holzapfel, twenty-five, and his brother Forrest, twenty-three, also attended the school in its early years. “I remember the windows being really high, “ says Simon about the classroom which is housed in the town church. “I’m still friends with some of the kids that were in my class back then,” he adds.
As an eighth grader, Simon returned to the preschool to work as a helper. “I read to the kids, pushed them on the swings, and helped them play more civilly,” recalls Simon, who is now a teacher himself at the Putney School.
Liza Murrow Ketchum founded The Meetinghouse School in the early seventies and served as its first director/teacher. As an educator and writer, she studied schools in England for the book she authored, Children Come First. Liza was impressed with the innovative primary programs there which helped shape her vision for the preschool she would start in Marlboro.
The directorship of the school has changed hands over the years, and Liza, who is now a children’s author, resides outside of Boston. She was excited to receive the announcement of the school’s twenty-fifth anniversary, saying, “I was tickled to see Joe Hamilton’s signature on the letter.”
At seventy-seven, Mr. Hamilton has served as chairman of the board since the school began.“All of my efforts over the years to retire have been fruitless,” says Joe with a hint of a smile, “Three or four years ago they passed a resolution… they won’t let me resign.”
When first searching for a site for the preschool, Liza found the town church to be the perfect spot. Built in 1932 and located in the center of Marlboro, the building has a large center room, kitchen and bathroom facilities, and huge windows that let in plenty of light.
Like other rural churches in the area, membership had been declining, and services were only held in the summer months and at Christmas time. As church moderator, Joe Hamilton, a dairy farmer in West Brattleboro, supported the idea of turning over the use of the first floor of the church to the preschool. “It just seemed to me that it was better to have the building used,” said Joe.
The Hamilton family has been members of the church since the early 1800s (before the original building on that site burnt down). “Joe was a great link between the school community and the church community,” says school founder Liza Murrow Ketchum, “The first year or two, most of the people were nervous about the preschool, but once they saw that the families and I cared about the building, things changed.”
Liza describes the involvement of the parents in the school during those early years as “heartwarming,”and adds, “There just wasn’t any other way to run the place.”
This tradition of parent involvement in the school has been passed down through the generations of families, and has kept this cooperative preschool alive. Twenty-five years later, the parents continue to work closely with the director to ensure the school’s success:
Parents come in to cook and create with the children, they volunteer to work as substitutes or chaperones if needed, they provide snack for the class, they take on the jobs of maintaining and cleaning the building, and they organize and carry out the fundraisers that financially support the school.
For some this may seem overwhelming, but for the parents whose children attend this school, it is essential. “A lot of parents in this society are looking for a place to put their kids while they go off and do their things, I don’t think that’s the general consensus here,” says parent Kathy Pell, “We’re looking for a place for our kids to go that we’re a part of as well.”
“This is a different place than others,” continues Kathy, who also serves on the board. “There are preschools that we have been to where they won’t let parents come in, where they won’t let you stay, where they certainly wouldn’t let you sit there and help your kids out during the day– and be a part of the whole thing. Family is really important here, and that makes it unique.”
Board member and parent Carol Brooke-deBock agrees, “Any teacher that comes aboard has to feel committed that the kids just aren’t being sent to the school. She has to want to work with the whole family, and to encourage the parents to ask questions.”
“Parents are willing to make the commitment,” adds parent Jodi Paloni, who also serves on the board, “That commitment is needed to keep things going, and it’s fun! It’s not just what get’s done… it’s the spirit of it all. That provides the momentum for the school.”
Celeste MacArthur takes advantage of the scholarship offered for cleaning the classroom. Her daughter Iyla is the third of her children to attend Meetinghouse. “Even when I’m cleaning, I think about the kids… It isn’t just a job. I have so much gratitude for Iyla’s experience here,” Celeste says.
Working scholarships are available to families who need tuition support. Generally tuition covers about sixty percent of the school’s annual budget (depending on enrollment), while the remaining portion comes from the school’s fundraising initiatives.
“Fundraising can be a drag at times… It’s a lot of work, ” emphasizes school treasurer Carol Brooke-deBock, “But it also brings people together. People feel more invested in the school because of it.”
The school’s largest and longest-running fundraising effort is their Annual Cider Sale which has taken place each autumn for the past twenty years! The school even has its own pressing equipment.
Whether or not you know the school, you most surely know this event that takes place on Route 9 in Marlboro each Columbus Day Weekend. The landmark is the huge mound of apples and the big tents under which the cider is pressed and the home baked pies are sold.
The cider sale kicks off the school year for the parents and really brings their families together: the week before the sale everyone gathers at Scott Orchard in Dummerston to do the picking. The preschoolers work along side their– brothers and sisters, moms and dads, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and friends– to gather the apples for the cider and for pies that will be baked the following week.
The relationships formed in coming together to support the school “carry over into the community,” explains board member Laura Hunter. “There is this great friendship outside of the school… it’s really amazing. We are all so different from each other, but the core of why we are at Meetinghouse is the same, and that makes our bonds so strong.”
That bond is vital to parent Kathy Pell who was new to the community when her son Dakota was a preschooler. “When we moved here, I definitely didn’t feel like I was part of anything,” explains Kathy, “but being at Meetinghouse, first as parent, then as a board member, gave me this little tiny community to be a part of… a place where we share a philosophy of what we want for our kids… to have a really safe, really enjoyable, learning environment.”
The common values held by these families are “apparent in the children themselves,” says parent Dolly Glennon, who drives from Wilmington each day so that her sons Brad and Drew can attend the school.
Meetinghouse has always attracted families from communities outside its home in Marlboro. Prior to relocating there, Laura Hunter traveled from Brookline to enable her daughter to attend the school. “Erica has special needs,” explains Laura, “We had looked at every place in the area, and nothing felt right. But the minute that I took her over to Meetinghouse, it was like, ‘this is it!’”
“Paul works well with kids with special needs,” says alumni parent Janie Ahern about the school’s director, Paul Redmond, “That makes it a very unique school… It’s not only unique to the kids who are already there, but also for kids that really need something extra. Not all preschools can do that.”
“Paul interacted with my daughter like nobody else did,” explains Laura, “I really needed that for her. I never felt like I could drop her off and leave her with anybody else before. This was a safe place.”
Many parents seem to know that The Meetinghouse School is the right place for their child the moment they walk through the door. “It’s definitely the perfect environment… the children have the space to expand, “ says Dolly Glennon about the classroom, “It’s also really neat to have a male role model for the kids.”
Janie Ahern served on the board in 1989 when Paul Redmond was hired as the director. She later worked as his assistant after her children graduated from the school. “One of the most important things about Paul is that he thinks of each child as being truly unique, and he treats them that way. Not all teachers do that,” Janie explains. “Paul really zeros in on the kids, and that’s his focus, “ she adds, “He is very concerned about the child’s well being and about what they are learning in the world… and that’s not just out of a book, and it’s not just from a project.”
On first encounter, it may surprise you to meet the director who runs the Meetinghouse School– he’s not what you might expect of someone whose days are spent with small children. For starters, there aren’t too many men working in preschools; and Paul’s not fresh out of college either, he has a masters in education and has been teaching for almost thirty years.
Paul Redmond is a big, burly kind of guy with a long droopy mustache. (He once came to school clean shaven and dressed in a tie and suit for Halloween… none of the kids recognized him.) There’s a definite solidness about Paul, in the way he talks to the children, and yet he is also very gentle. With his southern accent, you’ll hear him reminding the girls and boys to be “ladies” and “gentlemen.”
They love him!
“Paul comes when we need him,” says four-year old Lindsay Ware, “When I am up in a tree, he helps me get down.”
“We like when Paul plays tricks on us, like when he pretends that Brad’s lunch is his,” say five-year olds, Aaron Brooke-deBock and Margaret Bernhard, with a giggle.
“Paul protects things,”says Liza Haughty,
“and when somebody gets hurt, he comes,” adds Alex Hunter.
“We like when he does scary stories!” three-year olds, Madeline Hawes and MacKenzie Fisher, say with a big grin.
At times the parents pull up to the school at the end of a rainy day to find the building vibrating with Latin music as Paul leads the class in a scarf dance. On the drive home, the children will laugh about how Goldilocks met The Three Pigs in a play they acted out that morning. Day and night, the house will be filled with song… “Mud, mud, I love mud! I’m absolutely, positively, wild about mud!”
“I want the kids to be excited about being at school,” says Paul, “ I want them to sing and dance… I want the world to open up to them. If children feel safe, emotionally and physically, then they’ll explore, they’ll take chances. I provide that safety by being consistent, by assuring them that no harm will come to them, and by letting them know that there are certain things that I will allow and certain things I won’t allow. They come to trust me.”
“Paul is obviously ideal,” says board member Kathy Pell about the kind of teacher the parents want for their children. “We want someone who encourages the children to solve their own problems, but who also gives them the skills to do that… someone who encourages them to explore, who doesn’t push educational philosophies versus the children’s learning and growth… someone who will be enthusiastic and gentle, all at the same time,” she explains.
“In the same way that children need to feel safe, parents need to feel that their children are safe,” says Paul, “They have to be involved in order to feel that. The better the parents know me, the more comfortable they are with me, and the more willing they are to talk to me about their children’s real issues. I like it when parents come and visit. I like for them to feel that this is their school, and I like for them to know what’s going on.”
Mornings at Meetinghouse are a nice blend of what this school is all about. At group time, the children come together on the green rug to sing songs and hear about the day’s activities. The parents circle around with babes in arms (or coffee), keeping their eyes on wandering toddlers.
There’s lots of laughter, especially among the adults, as Paul (who has been described as the David Letterman of preschool) targets comments their way. Parents linger just a moment more to see what he’ll say next as he manages ‘show and tell’,… always able to find a new angle on the same fire equipment that one little guy has brought in each week since the beginning of the year.
After group, the parents leave one by one, and the children begin their day.
The scene is timeless...
Alex and Brad at the easel, Margaret and Liza in the dress-up corner, MacKenzie and Orion dressed in capes and armor in the climbing frame, Lloyd and Griffin at the sandbox, Lindsay and Cody at the art tables, Eli and Iyla building towers, Jason and Aaron with Trent eating peanuts…
Change the names and the faces, and you are transported back to an earlier time when children who are now out of college did these same things.
Meetinghouse is not about a certain group of kids or even a certain group of parents, it’s not about one particular director or one particular way of teaching, it’s not even about the building that’s housed it for the last twenty-five years.
The Meetinghouse School is a tradition created by all of those pieces coming together, working together, to make a safe and happy place for our children.
Happy 25th Anniversary Meetinghouse!!!