Taking the Road Less Traveled: The Founding of Cherry Preschool
Published in ChicagoNow, October 29, 2014
The first Cherry Preschool was born in 1990. It existed on a scrap of paper hidden in a drawer – my personal dream. I wrote it the way girls often try out the names of boys they like. I just wanted to see how it looked. At the time, I was mourning the death of my mentor, Warren Cherry. And I was frustrated over the endless negotiations to keep the nursery school I had directed for seven years intact. Starting a new school was definitely embarking on a “road less traveled.” I just didn’t know it at the time.
Several parents were happy to join me in my delusion that it would be no problem at all to start down this road and create a new school. Righteous anger is a powerful motivator, and ignorance of the road we had chosen was truly bliss. Martha and Al Belmonte, Debbie Boileve, Peg Culhane, Bill Banzhaf, Jim Bernstein, Barbara Goodman, Geoff Harlow, Maggie Hessler, Susan Jones, Lisa Proctor, Seth Weinberger, and Caryn Weiner were high-energy parents and teachers who shared in my vision.
What amazing luck that these people were not only willing to meet weekly for hours on end and devote massive amounts of time to creating a school – they also had the right mix of talent and community connections to get the job done. They included an accountant, a lawyer, educators, and fundraisers. They knew architects, realtors, and even a contractor. So, we plunged ahead down a road with no markings and created our own path as we marched forward.
In hindsight, the new board had an ambitious (you might say ridiculous) agenda. It included raising funds, finding a location for the new school, and registering families for a preschool that was just a concept at that point. A budget was drafted using an amazing new program, Quicken. A list of over twenty locations that could potentially rent us space was compiled. A plan to solicit funds, materials, and toys from families who were sympathetic to our plight was put in place. Yes, that’s right, we had no toys, storage units for them, tables, chairs, easels, art supplies…in short, we had nothing.
By February we were incorporated as a tax-exempt institution under the name Evanston Developmental Preschool (EDP). I’m still not sure why we chose this unfortunate name, as the children referred to it as the “Mental School.” It happened around midnight at the end of one of our marathon meetings in January. Everyone wrote suggested names on slips of paper and put them in a hat. As we pulled out one after the other, they all sounded like names for toilet paper. Like everything else we did, there was consensus that EDP would do for an initial name. The name in my drawer would have to wait one more year.
How did we end up buying our own building with no capital? We had our huge list of potential rental sites and divvied up the task of checking them out. At this point, we were working with a licensing representative from the Department of Children and Family Services and a State Fire Marshal. Evanston is an old community and none of the 20+ places we looked at would have passed muster without a lot of work. One would think that would have stopped us, but we all believed that we just needed to look harder or be more creative.
On a snowy day in January, Peg Culhane and I were literally driving up and down streets looking at buildings when we spotted a former Rotary building at 1418 Lake Street that was abandoned and headed for receivership. Its location in a residential neighborhood in central Evanston was ideal, but even more exciting was its proximity to the newly built Penny Park. It was just ripe for the picking if we only had money.
How do you obtain a mortgage without money? It was a different era and we were able to obtain two mortgages with no down payment to finance the building. As always, someone knew someone. At the time, it did not seem particularly remarkable to me – we all expected we would succeed. Next we needed to “get by with a little help from our friends.” Specifically, six families loaned us $50,000 with a promised high interest rate, and we fundraised $55,000 to pay for the build-out costs, which were originally estimated to be $105,000.
I must confess that initially Peg and I saw minimal need for “build out” as we assumed we could knock down a few office walls, resulting in long, narrow, rectangular-shaped classrooms. But when a school architect looked at the space (pro bono, of course), he enlightened us to the unreality of our vision as well as to the requirements of the city and the newly passed Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations.
Next hurdle – what contractor in his right mind would undertake this project with such an unrealistic budget and very tight timeline? It was now June and we needed to open the school in September. Enter Conrad! While he had never done a complete home remodeling, let alone a project of this magnitude, he had just remodeled Susan’s bathroom, seemed like a nice guy, and was naïve enough to make a really low bid. Perfect, he fit right in with our vision.
Poor man. We hounded him mercilessly with punch lists. He was overwhelmed by requirements from city inspectors, and he probably lost money in the end. At least he can be proud that he got the job done with lots of help from parents whose skills ranged from master carpenters who built the handicap accessible ramp to people who had never hammered a nail.
The new ADA regulations drove our costs up to 150% of our budget. The city was unsure how to apply these and insisted on things like a handicap accessible bathroom in the basement, which was not accessible to people with handicaps that would need such a bathroom. We argued about handrails in bathrooms for children that the city wanted at regulation adult height (we won that one). To keep costs down and in our “barn-raising” tradition, parents painted the entire school, cleaned ducts and floors, sealed the parking lot, picked up and installed used appliances for the kitchen, built and installed cubbies in the classrooms, cleaned everything, and borrowed a truck to pick up and deliver donated furnishings for the school.
What did we do for toys and supplies? In addition to cleaning out our own children’s playrooms (for years they would visit the preschool and exclaim, “I used to have a toy like that!”), we scoured the city for summer garage sales. We collected cast-off office furnishings to hold toys. Martha stored everything in her garage. We washed and fixed and schlepped everything to the east side of our building, which was unoccupied that summer expect for a make-shift office space with an old, donated computer (remember the kind with paper that had holes on the edges?) and a phone, borrowing the number from Peg’s second line (eventually she gifted that number to us).
Despite working 60-hour weeks and trying to balance the start-up chaos with my ongoing asthma attacks brought on by construction dust and stress, I was energized by what I saw unfolding. We were like the Amish in the famous barn-raising scene from the 1985 Harrison Ford movie Witness (minus him, of course) – the sound track kept running through my brain. We plied city inspectors with homemade brownies and plowed ahead. When the rooms were painted, the staff moved all of the toys in from the east side of our building, divvying them up by a lottery system.
During the entire nine months of creating the preschool and through that tough first year spent in survival mode, this was the only time I cried. The electrical inspector refused to look at the outlets because we had “occupied” the space without his permission by bringing in the toys. When brownies and begging failed, we offered to move everything to a heap in the center of each room so he would have lots of space for his inspection. He would not be moved but all of the toys did move, carted back to the east side, and I sat on the floor and cried.
Miraculously, our school still opened on September 21, 1992 – only a week later than we had hoped.
One of my favorite poems, Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, includes the famous last stanza,
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
When forced by a fork in the road to choose a path, Frost takes the one fewer people have chosen. I guess if you are going to be a poet, that’s the right choice for you. But sometimes the road less traveled chooses you. Starting Cherry Preschool was definitely such a path.