It all began with the planning and building of a new First Congregational Church. At that time its minister, Reverend Ray Utterback, welcomed the idea of including a weekday nursery school in the new structure. During that same period of time, 1952 to 1957, the need for quality pre-school experiences in Indiana was a growing concern to many. One of the results was the creation of the Indianapolis Council of Preschool Co-operatives (ICPC).
When the congregation moved into its new building at 7171 N. Pennsylvania in 1957, Hilda West called together the women in the church who she knew had a special interest in offering a nursery school to their community. The West family had given the land for a new church to the congregation. Nancy Roeske assisted Hilda West in organizing a nursery school under the guidance of the Indianapolis Council of Preschool Cooperatives. Mary Batrick was found through an ad in the Northside Topics and hired to teach the first class when it met in January of 1960.
An agreement was reached with the church for the nursery school to use one classroom in the lower level along with the permanent equipment, which belonged to the Sunday School. The nursery school supplemented this equipment with additional materials along with tricycles which the children rode in the community room or the parking lot. The small swing set and the green climber comprised the initial outdoor playground and are still used today.
In the summer of 1961, Dessie Partenheimer arrived in Indiana looking for a nursery school for her children. And at that time the school was looking for a new teacher. Dessie had done graduate work at Purdue University while working at Early Childhood Lab School and at the University of California, Berkeley. She had owned her own early childhood program in Mobile, Alabama, and had formed co-operative playgroups for her children in California. At MHCNS she enrolled her children, was hired as teacher until 1974 and then as director until 1982.
By 1963 a waiting list was growing so it was decided to add a four-year-old class to make it possible for more children to benefit from the school. Lynn Doyne was hired as teacher and her son, Billy, joined the three-year-old-class. With well-equipped rooms, a stable staff and full enrollment it was decided to undertake fulfilling a dream — a fenced playground to provide safe as well as stimulating and creative play.
By the fall of 1965 the children could begin climbing up ladders, peeking out of portholes and sliding down the firefighter’s pole donated by the fire station on 30th Street. Dessie worked with the church for change the play yard to a “playground.” Lynn’s mother, a landscape architect, designed the creative treehouse and circular trike path. Carl Rothe, a school father and church member, provided final details and drawings. Incidentally, Carl could still be found in the halls of the church helping to maintain the building as well as help with nursery school projects. The contractor was Ronald McConkey, an uncle of a MHCNS student. The Rothes and other parents continued to work in the play yard that summer. The outdoor animal pen which has been the source of many hilarious animal stories was added at this time. The cost of labor and materials for the playground, including the paved patio and trike runs, storage sheds, fencing, and digging area were paid for with a $2,750 bank loan signed by three school fathers. This project set an example of dedication and hard work by the parents and staff for the years to follow.
Next came an indoor project with labor and supplies donated by Barry Bartle, another nursery school father. The two story playhouse has been a very popular place for “family life” since 1970. Other indoor equipment made by creative parents during this time includes smocks, the rocking horse designed by Nancy Woolen, and large bulletin boards built by John Partenheimer. Dessie’s charming and persuasive talents were evidenced as she acquired a large cement culvert, gratis, and a slide and a set of eight park swings from Meridian Hills Country Club. The new equipment, two very qualified teachers, and enthusiastic parents resulted in increasing enrollment. Carol Kohls joined the staff in 1968 making it possible to add two more classes. Under the imaginative and energetic leadership of Dessie and her excellent staff, MHCNS continued to grow and gain a name for excellence in the co-operative movement and the community. The staff shared their talents with the nursery school families as well as with ICPC workshops and conferences.
By 1973 Lynn and Carol faced changes in their family, both moving away from Indianapolis and leaving two classes without lead teachers. Dessie immediately found Carol Canada, a recent Purdue graduate, who was also from Purdue University Lab School Early Childhood. At the end of each year, a certificate was presented to departing parents offering them a “free participating day” in the classroom to assuage their yearning for the “good old days” at MHCNS. Please permit me to digress for a minute as I relate my introduction to Dessie. In 1965, I attended my first ICPC Conference. During one of the breaks I came upon Dessie and Lynn Doyne having a discussion. Actually it was Dessie persuading Lynn to teach at MHCNS. I watched Dessie work her magic on Lynn, who was a friend of mine. Before she knew what was happening, Lynn was on board. Almost ten years later, Dessie began to work her persuasive powers on me. The end result was me leaving my maternity/sabbatical leave from Willowcreek Co-op to teach a class of Chickadees at MHCNS. Prior to this, Dessie had informally mentored me during my early days of teaching at Willowcreek, and I had attended some of her workshops at ICPC. My son, Jeremy, joined my class of Chickadees and, together we began a wonderful adventure at MHCNS. Jeremy graduated at the end of 1976, but I stayed on for another 24 years.
As you might expect it was a challenge to fill the shoes and follow in the footsteps of Dessie. It took two of us to do just that. Sharon Hunt, a MHCNS parent taught the Redbirds and Carol Canada continued one more year with two classes. Both Sharon and Carol left at the end of that year when I added a Redbirds class to my contract and Dixie Taylor took over Carol’s classes, with Sheila Milliken joining the staff for one year. During this time our school logo made its appearance borrowed from some wrapping paper from a birthday party. It can still be found throughout the school. By 1982 Dessie having launched and guided a new staff retired to focus on life with her new husband, Stuart Koch.
We now enter the second chapter of MHCNS history. With Dessie’s departure, I was appointed Director with even bigger shoes to fill. Linda Theobald, a MHCNS parent, signed on as a teacher of the Robins and Bluebirds. She brought with her daughter, Susan and a variety of equipment such as an old-fashioned water pump from her father’s farm and a variety of materials for our sensory table including corn husks and soybeans. The sensory table was a new piece of equipment adding to our older favorites: the steering wheel, the rocking boat, the wonderful supply of hollow blocks and the work bench. Linda and I held Sunday evening phone calls as we planned for the coming week. One of the highlights of that period was a Parent Education meeting hosted by MHCNS at which Lilian Katz, a professor at the University of Illinois, was the featured speaker. All of the families in ICPC were invited to share in this special event. Dr. Katz went on to become a national advocate for young children and a publisher of books in the field of early childhood education.
At the end of four years, Linda retired from teaching and, with special permission from the board, I taught all four classes from 1983 to 1986. In 1983, Ginny Hacker became president of the school and you will see her name in future records. As president, Ginny had the opportunity to guide the school in an expansion campaign. As MHCNS was moving forward, it became evident that our incredible offerings of discovery learning for young children, as well as guidance for parents, were attracting increasing numbers of prospective families. Our Membership Committee was faced with finding a place for all of the children who wanted to take part in these offerings. The board petitioned the church membership to allow us to rent additional rooms on the main floor to accommodate two additional classes. After a series of presentations and discussions, the request was granted.
As has been the case with every new MHCNS venture, the parents rallied to make this addition possible. Claudia Fagan, a parent, and her crew of professional workers designed and built a play area in the middle room upstairs. A new wooden climber, triangle climbers, a sensory table, more hollow blocks and Jeremy Robinson’s work bench were also added. Candy Hammond became a teacher of the Wrens (3’s) and another chapter of MHCNS history was begun in 1984. With the arrival of Candy, a new tradition began — home visits to the children in the three’s class. As September approached, Candy and Shari armed themselves with camera, a stuffed animal, some Unifix cubes (items which the children would find when they came to school) and set out to visit the incoming three’s. These visits ran the gamut of experiences including stepping over dirty laundry in the basement in order to get to a family guinea pig; being taken next door to meet the incoming child’s best friend; to arriving at the wrong address looking rather foolish armed with a camera and a stuffed animal. Candy added the Hummingbird class to her duties in the fall of 1985.
In 1986, Connie Dust, president, introduced colorful red and brass plaques to be presented to departing families who had been participating for at least five years. To organize the classes and insure better communication a file box was placed in the downstairs hallway to receive and provide necessary information for board members and parents. She also designed a pendant with the nursery school logo, which she presented to the director. Later, the tradition became to present a pendant to the outgoing school presidents.
As our enrollment and classes grew, our staff was motivated to grow also. While we had always been active in ICPC conferences and workshops as well as the Teachers’ Study Groups, it seemed timely to take advantage of the professional offerings of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). When possible, we began to attend the national conferences and the Indianapolis Association for the Education of Young Children. Our school was featured on a tour of attendees at a Midwest AEYC conference and we served dinner to the visiting board members of Parent Preschool International. We developed a sense of pride and professionalism as a result of these activities. It was rewarding to attend a convention with thousands of others who had chosen to work for and with young children. It was encouraging to find that we weren’t “just a nursery school teacher.” We were active advocates for some special little people.
This became an impetus for seeking NAEYC accreditation in 1988; a process which we voluntarily took part in to verify our status as a quality program for young children. Our school was the first co-op in the city to do so and shared honors with Castleton Methodist Preschool for being the first preschools to take part. The accreditation reinforced our dedication to continuing the path on which we were launched in 1961.
As of 1986 our flock of birds had grown to include Wrens and Hummingbirds upstairs along with the Chickadees, Redbirds, Robins and Bluebirds downstairs. In 1987, Gail Rice joined us for a year to teach the Robins, followed in 1989 by Annette Docktor who taught a class of Redbirds. Dawn Kazarian taught the Robins for one year. The classrooms were humming with joy and the busy-ness of young children. A new fire truck, built by Emily and Howdy Gilchrist, was added to our playground and is still on the playground today.
One thing we became very good at was responding to a need for additional classes and providing challenges to existing classes. In 1989, there was a strong interest for offering an extended day. Candy Hammond took on this task by offering an extended day one day a week for the months of February and March. This provided some enrichment activities for the children and helped to counter the familiar winter malady called “Cabin Fever” for young children and their parents. Each week a different area of interest was pursued including trains, boats and favorite nursery rhyme themes such as The Three Little Pigs, and The Three Bears. One highlight of this offering was Candy’s class presenting their own ballet after visiting the Butler Ballet. Back at school, the children performed their own ballet by creating a stage out of hollow blocks and training their stage lights (flashlights) on prima ballerinas in pink tutu’s being “lifted” by boy dancers — a grand performance.
In 1990, it became evident that our wonderful outdoor treehouse, which had delighted children since the 1960’s, needed to be replaced. One of our fathers, Tom Waugh, began building the replacement in his garage. The project was completed and installed with the help of our ready workforce — our parents. That climber was modified two years later when it was lowered and tires for climbing were attached to the side. A new firefighter’s pole was donated by the Reel family to replace the pole from the fire house on 30th Street.
A need for change in our programming occurred in 1987 after the State Legislature of Indiana changed its entry date, for kindergarteners to June l. This was the result of a misguided belief that moving the entrance date back would make the children “more ready” for the kindergarten programs that were being offered. In the fall of 1990 our school responded to this by offering a class for those who missed the state cut-off date (young five’s) and including older four’s whose birthdays were before December. Candy was the first to teach this class. That same year it was decided to drop the Redbirds class of four’s. The Robins class (three’s) was dropped in the fall of 1991.
Ginny Hacker joined the staff in 1991 to replace Candy Hammond who had resigned to teach full time kindergarten for At Your School Services in Washington Township. This could be thought of as the fourth chapter of MHCNS history. We were so fortunate to have a reservoir of talented teachers among our parents. Ginny was one of those parents. Over the years, out of a staff of twenty-four teachers, sixteen had been parents of our nursery school children. Ginny was with us as a teacher from 1991 through spring of 1996 when she resigned to seek full-time work. During her years of teaching Wrens and Hummingbirds, Ginny brought many delightful experiences to her classes. Her little Wrens loved to sing: “Waaay up in the sky the little birds fly. Waaaay down in the nest the little birds rest!” Oobleck oozing through the fingers was a wonderfully messy favorite activity. And, during Ginny’s tenure, a new tradition was established. In 1996 Ginny’s Hummingbird class was all girls. Ginny, the mother of two boys decided to have her class host a Mothers’ Day Tea. With the enthusiastic assistance of Beth Breymier, the girls made little sandwiches, decorated cookies, created flower-bedecked hats and invited their mothers to join them for tea. This tradition is still carried on in the Robins and Kinderbirds classes but now includes boys, dressed in Sunday best (complete with hand-painted ties) along with girls in their finery.
Before we stray too far, it should be mentioned that the children, parents and teachers planted daffodil bulbs in the fall of 1991 in memory of our dear former president, Connie Dust.
A significant historical incident took place in the spring of 1993. Linda Lafollette, a Butler University early childhood education major came to our school for a semester of student-teaching under my tutelage. Linda had attended MHCNS as one of the birds from 1966 through 1968. As a student teacher, she found many of her favorite things still in the classrooms: the hollow blocks, the rocking horse barrel and the triangles for jumping. Having been in business since I961, it shouldn’t be surprising to find alums returning with their precious families. The return of these families speaks volumes about the on-going excellence of our program. I was to experience the joy of having the child of an alum, my granddaughter, in my 1997 Chickadee class. Isabelle Barnard, the daughter of Peter Barnard and my daughter, Lizbeth, became a member of the last Chickadees class that I was to teach. Isabelle’s Aunt Laura, Aunt Sarah, and Uncle David had all attended MHCNS&K. Their mother, Betsy Barnard, served as President in 1968-69. Sarah Lootens may have been the first alum to return with her children.
Getting back to our teaching staff, Ginny and I had the joy of teaching together for five years. We each taught a class of three’s and a four’s class. We were assisted by Carol House who taught one class of four’s for one year, and by Dianne Beardsley who taught a three/four’s class for two years. In 1994, Cathy Farney took on one four’s class for two years. When Ginny left in l996, Cathy and I each taught a three’s and four’s class. In 1998-99 Shelley Leer and Joan Brandt each taught a Chickadee and Wrens class for one year while Cathy and I took on our last Hummingbird and Bluebird Class. A log cabin was added to the playground in the fall of 1996 and dedicated to Ginny Hacker and Shari Robinson by then current president, Lisa Hurst in 1995-1996.
On April 17, 1999, MHCNS celebrated its 40th birthday along with a very touching farewell to Cathy and me as we turned in our teachers’ badges and looked toward retirement. Included in the celebration were former teachers: Dessie Partenheimer Koch, Carol Kohls, Lynn Doyne, Sharon Hunt, Linda Theobald, Candy Hammond, Ginny Hacker, Joan Brandt and Shelley Leer. Cathy and I were presented with lovely vases engraved with the school logo. The vases are a continuing reminder of the happy years that we enjoyed at MHCNS. As a farewell present, an Endowment Fund was established with accruing interest to be used for the staff’s professional development, tuition assistance, and for equipment replacement. The finale was the dedication of a beautiful shade garden in the southwest corner of our playground designed by the gardening expertise of Jane Funke and Lisa Hurst. What a celebration!
A new “office” was installed in the basement level in the spring of 1999. Cupboards and shelves were installed to hold our abundance of files and storage materials. This was a very welcome addition.
While my classroom days were over, I still had the privilege of working as Director with our wonderful replacements as they prepared for their first teaching year at MHCNS. Cheri West, a former parent, was hired as the new Chickadees’ teacher; Carol Shipley joined us as a Wrens’ teacher, Mindy Hutchinson took on the Hummingbirds and Jamey Peavler became teacher of the Bluebirds. Much to our delight Linda LaFollette Foley (an alum and former student teacher) enrolled her son at MHCNS in 1999. Linda filled in for Jamey that year and then taught an Extended Day Class in 2001.
In 2002, Linda took over the Bluebirds class and Ginny Hacker put on a new hat for MHCNS. After serving as parent in the 80s, a teacher in the 90s, volunteer director in 2000-2001, she now assumed the official role of director. She joined just in time to become aware of a growing interest that was beginning to surface — the idea of a Kindergarten class at MHCNS. Current parents were wishing for an alternative to the kindergarten programs that were available to them. Specifically they were yearning for a more developmentally appropriate program, with smaller class size and more parental involvement. Because these desires were so compatible with the MHCNS philosophy, it seemed right to offer these features at the kindergarten level. Thus the birthing of the Kinderbirds and Chapter 6 of now MHCNS&Kindergarten history begins in the fall of 2003.
The first step was to change the name of the four’s class to Hummingbirds with Linda Foley as teacher. Carol Shipley became the teacher of the Robins who met three days a week (with one extended day) and in the afternoon. Cheri West continued with the Chickadees for one more year, leaving to join her husband in a business venture at the end of the 2004 school year. Mindy Hutchinson met with the Kinderbirds two days a week from 9:00-2:00 and on Fridays from 9:00-12:00.
As has been previously noted, MHCNS&K was always receptive to change and meeting the needs of the enrollment. When Cheri left a three’s class was eliminated. There was much interest in starting a pilot class for two’s. Thus, in 2004-2005, one class for two’s was started which was taught by Carol Shipley and called the Baby Birds. Carol continued to teach the Robins (a four’s class) in the afternoons. The Hummingbird class was taught by Linda.
In 2005-06, Carol Shipley became the Assistant Director. The Robins class was moved to three mornings a week with one extended day and the Kinderbirds moved to Tuesday and Thursdays from 9:00 to 2:00 and on Fridays from 9:00-12:00. Kinderbirds who chose to do so could stay for lunch and Spanish class from 12:00 to 2:00 on Fridays with Catherine Bauer-Martinez, another former nursery school parent. Linda now taught the two’s, a class of Purple Finches and a class of Gold Finches along with one Chickadee class which had Lunch Bunch once a week.
Happily, the schedule and the staff remained the same from 2006 through 2010, with just one change occurring in the Kinderbirds in the fall of 2010. It was decided that offering the class for three days a week from 9:00 to 2:00 was a better financial offering. So as of September 2010, this schedule went into effect. Spanish enrichment is still offered but now it’s a part of the regular school day on Fridays with Catherine working with the children on the playground, through lunch and an hour of instruction. This provides the children with the opportunity to learn Spanish in an interactive way at an ideal age for learning language. Each of the classes has established its special traditions. Carol’s Robins delight in regular art projects but are especially pleased to learn more about real artists as they visit the Indianapolis Museum of Art with Wendy Wilkerson, a former MHCNS&K parent and president, serving as their guide. On returning to school the children create their own still life, photographed by Carol, to share with their family. They also contribute to a group still life which becomes a very popular parent gift. They have enjoyed experimenting with colored tissues and glue ala Eric Carle. Note: Wendy Wilkerson a.k.a. as the Lobster Lady continues the tradition of bringing a live lobster and her childhood memories of Maine to the class each year.
Science experiments have been an on-going excitement in Mindy’s Kinderbirds class. They have established the tradition of attending the Butler Ballet’s Nutcracker each year. When spring and Mothers’ Day arrive, you will find the Kinderbirds honoring their mothers with a play complete with paper bag costumes. No matter what time of year that you visit, the Kinderbirds will be seen with clipboards in hand, graphing each other’s favorites depending on the current area of interest. Most recently it was favorite kinds of whales.
Linda’s specialty is helping the Finches (two’s) make a comfortable transition from home to school. It is heartwarming to watch those little ones settle in and gradually become aware of others occupying the same space as they move from activity to activity. By the time they reach the Chickadee class, they are very adept at settling in and are old-hands at sharing. They are always happy to find their teacher, Mrs. Foley as the constant when they become Chickadees. Life at MHCNS&K continues to be a beautiful thing thanks to these nurturing and enthusiastic teachers.
During this time, our playground received some additions. Andy Mattice, an Eagle Scout whose project was to spruce up our playground, built 4 mini picnic tables for us, bought and installed a rock for climbing, and cleaned up the playground. He finished in the summer of 2009. He chose this Eagle Scout project because his sister, Sarah, who died of leukemia in 2005, was a Hummingbird and loved our school. She especially loved playing on our playground. Another playground attraction of 2009, our “Hungry Caterpillar” tire bench brings to life Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar book. Made from recycled tires, this artful installation was created by Girl Scout Meredith McKay, who donated it to the equine-assisted rehabilitation clinic, The Children’s TheraPlay Foundation, for its annual fundraiser. It was purchased by and then donated to our school by former president, Stacy Lozer and her family.
As we celebrate our 50th birthday, we find it very comforting to see that in spite of changes and challenges that parents are facing, the focus and goals are still the same. That parents are still willing to commit to a program that requires much of their time, energy and expertise is absolutely thrilling to those of us who have experienced less demanding times. We applaud the creative way that families who have chosen our school are managing their busy schedules. We find more fathers participating, many full-time. We find that mothers who are working full-time are able to have some flexibility in their work day to include co-op involvement. We are happy that those who have chosen to be stay-at-home-parents are realizing that they, too, are doing a very important job. We are so grateful to find teachers that are able and willing to provide the continuity and dedication that our wonderful program offers. We are so pleased that they are willing to forego the more lucrative, full-time teaching positions and that they recognize the fringe benefits that accompany teaching in this incredible educational environment.
Thank you to all of the children, parents, teachers, and to the First Congregational Church for making this experience possible. Happy 50th Birthday Meridian Hills Co-operative Nursery School & Kindergarten and many more!
~ Written by Shari Robinson, former teacher and director
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