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What Do You Believe In? Ask “The Little Preschool That Could”

Published in ChicagoNow, November 13, 2014

The seeds of what Cherry Preschool of Evanston, Illinois, believes in were present from the start. From the date of its incorporation in January of 1992 to its birth nine months later when it opened in September, the founders of “The Little Preschool That Could” asked themselves, “What do we believe in?”

Our list included a:

  • Community in which parents and staff collaborated as partners on behalf of their children and all children

  • Child-friendly learning environment that encouraged the social, emotional, and intellectual growth of each child at his/her own rate

  • Play based learning environment and a developmentally appropriate curriculum

  • School that taught children to appreciate others who are different from themselves and to see the ways in which all people are the same

  • Place where children were respected, accepted, appreciated and cherished for their unique personalities, cultures, needs, and learning styles

  • Program that included everyone – children with special needs and families with financial needs

  • Preschool that helped children to develop a positive self-image

  • Place where children learned to respect themselves and others, to think independently and creatively, and to behave in a pro-social manner

Maybe it was a bit of a utopian vision but it was heartfelt. It came from having to examine what really mattered and define ourselves as we created a new preschool. We were a director (me), teaching staff, and parent board that had left another early childhood program en masse due to philosophical conflicts with the church that housed us. Having to begin again was a great opportunity to discover what we truly believed in.

The passion for including children with special needs was born from experiences at our old program. In the 1980’s, there was a lack of sophistication about and support for children who had special needs. But we did have a legacy of working with Lekotek, an agency that served children with significant special needs through lending families toys and running support groups. Occasionally, Lekotek brought a child and therapist to our program, but they were not really part of the class.

Because the new Americans with Disabilities Act required a handicap accessible ramp for our new school, it literally opened the door for children with physical disabilities. This was all we envisioned at first. During the summer of 1992, however, a new parent asked if she could enroll her son who was diagnosed with autism in our fledgling program. All she wanted was for him to be able to be in a classroom with regular kids, even if he couldn’t participate. She assured us he would not be difficult or disruptive. Of course, I said yes and the teachers agreed. It was the least our new school could do for this family.

We soon recognized, however, that it really was the least we could do. Just being there was not the same as being included and we began to develop a program to ensure that future children with special needs participated in a meaningful way rather than just pushing a car back and forth alone on the rug. Today, that program supports and includes 10% of Cherry’s student population.

Our scholarship program had its origins in our original mission statement. We strongly felt we owed this much to our community – it was a moral imperative to embrace and enroll children who had nowhere else to go because of monetary reasons. The first year, we enrolled 165 children, most of them in morning classes that replicated the structure of our previous program.

We started an afternoon multi-age class, however, to meet the growing demand for our program, and we filled several of the empty spaces in that class with children needing scholarships. Mostly, referrals of these families came on an informal basis. A friend at Family Focus, a program that served low-income families, referred children to us. She and I shared the belief that it was better to enroll a child in need than to let an opening languish for lack of tuition. “One child at a time,” we told ourselves, and we had faith that somehow things would work out financially and educationally. Our approach was basically Martin Luther King’s “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” From those humble beginnings, this year Cherry is providing over $100,000 in scholarships to 40+ children.

Our vision for that first year was admittedly grandiose, but it was a true reflection of what we believed in. We committed to creating a model program of developmentally appropriate early childhood education. We vowed to include children with special needs and children of varying backgrounds in our school. We worked to fund scholarships for children whose families could not afford to pay tuition.

As I wrote in A Cherry Fairy Tale celebrating our fifth anniversary, dedicated to our Founding Board:

[Everyone] worked and worked to get the engine going. The ride was very bumpy and uphill. The hill was very, very steep. But everyone on the train kept saying, “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.”

When they finally got to the station, everything was dirty and rusty and broken. “No problem,” they all cried. “We can fix it.”

So everybody punch listed and painted and patched and washed windows and found toys and carried things and drove big trucks with powerful lifts. And they put it all together.

They liked each other so much and were having so much fun together that many of them decided to meet every week, sometimes until the clock struck twelve!

Then on September 21, 1992, the doors to the brand-new school were opened (even though they hadn’t been painted yet), and 165 smiling and happy little children played once again in a nice, friendly little preschool.

And everyone who rode that train said, “I thought we could. I thought we could. I thought we could.”

Like the beloved Little Engine That Could, we hitched ourselves to what we believed in and pulled that train to the top of the mountain. We were inspired by Margaret Mead’s words, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

And we believed in ourselves.


by Laurie Levy
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