Golden Anniversary for the Golden Rule: Presbyterian Nursery School turns 50 in Morristown

Stephanie Collazo in 1984, attending the Presbyterian Church Nursing Home in Morristown.
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NOW AND THEN: Left, Stephanie Collazzo Vander Westhuizen today with daughter Emmie, who attends the Presbyterian Nursery School; and Stephanie as a pupil there in 1984. Photos courtesy of the Presbyterian Church in Morristown
NOW AND THEN: Left, Stephanie Collazzo Vander Westhuizen today with daughter Emmie, who attends the Presbyterian Nursery School; and Stephanie as a pupil there in 1984. Photos courtesy of the Presbyterian Church in Morristown

 

Fiftieth reunions aren’t just for high schools.

On Sunday, the Presbyterian Church Nursery School will celebrate a half-century in Morristown.

More than 300 invitations have been sent to alumni and their families. The Presbyterian Church in Morristown is hoping that word of mouth will bring even more grads to the 10 a.m service on Oct. 26, 2014, for cake, memories and–who knows?–maybe a nursery rhyme or two.

Presbyterian nursery school logoDaycare is serious business in Morris County. Some 101 centers compete within a five-mile radius of Morristown, according to one chain that seeks municipal approvals to open in town.

Staff and parents credit the Presbyterian nursery school’s success to a time-tested formula: TLC.

“We don’t have all the bells and whistles,” said Director Katherine Henckler, referring to the old Presbyterian Parish House on South Street where the school resides. “But we do love the kids and treat them as individuals.”

“They put the children first here. It’s all about the children,” said Kara Bunting, whose son Max, 3 1/2, is a pupil.

Henckler oversees nine teachers, who teach half-day classes to 80 children from ages 2 1/2 to 5. Once a month, there is a Bible story. Otherwise, the preschool goes easy on religious messages. Most of the families are not even members of the church. Muslim and Jewish children have done just fine, Henckler added.

“We’re hoping to sum it up as the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would be treated,” she said.

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Tuition ranges from $1,700 to $4,500, depending on the child’s age and number of sessions per week.  While the church provides facilities and makes staff members available as needed, the school is self-supporting, with an annual budget of about $250,000.

Enrollment held steady even during the deepest part of the recession, which forced closure of a Presbyterian preschool in New Vernon, Henckler said.

Scholarships for families with financial need are offered by the church, and by Preschool Advantage (formerly Project Acorn).

“From the very beginning they embraced our mission and have been active in recommending students who would benefit from Preschool Advantage,” said Molly Dunn, executive director of that Morristown-based nonprofit.

“Feedback from families whose children attended the program has always been that they truly felt a part of the ‘PCNS family’ and had a wonderful experience there,” Dunn said via email.

CRACK KILLS’

Henckler’s enthusiasm is shared by the faculty. Julie Ramseyer, children’s music director for the church, teaches the youngest kids, two mornings a week. She introduces them to group play, sharing, and basic vocabulary: “Don’t grab the toy, don’t kick the kid!” she said with a laugh.

Ramseyer’s only regret is not jotting down all the funny things that kids say.

Like the day when a boy’s trousers slipped. Someone joked that his butt crack was showing.  Without missing a beat, a 3-year-old girl observed: “Crack kills!”

Teacher Julie Ramseyer and Katherine Henckler, director of the Presbyterian Church Nursery School in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Teacher Julie Ramseyer and Katherine Henckler, director of the Presbyterian Church Nursery School in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

At the end of a recent morning session, moms were unanimous in their praise for the program. The school is geared as much for them as for their offspring, the director said.

“It is lonely being a parent of small children. Sometimes they feel isolated,” said Henckler, a mother of three.

“It’s a close-knit community, it has a real community feel to it. You can be active and involved in the classes and the projects,” said Shannon Vitolo. Her 5-year-old son, Jackson, said he enjoys the wooden building blocks and bike-riding.

Kerry Cashin has sent her son Daniel, 4 1/2, to the Presbyterian Church Nursery School for the last three years.

“He’ll be going to ‘real’ schools for the rest of his life. So I wanted a warm, fun environment for him now,” Cashin said.

Ryan Barber, 3, is the third Barber child to attend the school. It’s a “loving, nurturing” place that well prepared Ryan’s brothers for entry into the Morris School District, said their mom, Alison Barber.

“There is such a sense of community here,” she said. “Mrs. Henckler is a huge reason.”

BITERS AND BLOCK-HURLERS

If anyone was born for this role, it’s Henckler.

Prior to becoming director eight years ago, she spent eight years as a teacher at the school. Her son, now 24, is an alumnus.

“This is a dream job. I know every child. Every grandparent I’ve seen more than once. There’s not a day I don’t get up and think, ‘I’m the luckiest person in the world to work here,'” she said.

Occasionally, a child with challenging issues must be referred elsewhere. There have been days when Henckler has shadowed a young “biter,” and kept on the lookout for block-hurlers.

“We’re teaching them how to be good citizens, and how to listen to their friends. We do a lot of role-playing.”

She draws inspiration from the children’s energy, and their trust.

“In the morning the kids look at you like they know it’s going to be a great day here,” Henckler said. “How can you not love that?”

INSET: Nancy Gray, second from left,  in 1972 as a teacher at the Presbyterian Nursery School; and as a teacher today, top left. Photos courtesy of the Presbyterian Church of Morristown.
INSET: Nancy Gray, second from left, in 1972 as a teacher at the Presbyterian Nursery School; and as a teacher today, top left. Photos courtesy of the Presbyterian Church of Morristown.

 

 

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