By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
Stepping through the front doors of St. Paul’s Nursery and Day School, it’s hard not to be transported back to childhood. The smell of wet paint, the reverberation of three-years-olds traipsing through the halls and the sound of teachers pouring piles of goldfish come together in a warm, cheerful chaos.
Martha Scott Schafer, headmistress of the preschool, tells her guests to ignore the mess in her office in a manner that suggests she knows the brightly colored toys and precariously stacked children’s books are unapologetically permanent fixtures.
Schafer has been St. Paul’s headmistress for half of its existence. As the school celebrates its 70th birthday throughout this year, Schafer will commemorate 35 years at its helm.
“It’s hard not to love it when you deal with, one: the women I work with; two: the children and three: the parents. It’s a very lovely place to be and it’s an exciting place to be,” Schafer said.
Schafer received her master’s degree in school administration from George Washington University and has been with St. Paul’s since she started in 1982.
“It’s the best job because something new happens every single day,” Schafer said. “The children are very savvy, very bright, very fun to be with, and they’re a challenge, because they’re just three, four and five years old. We believe so strongly in a good, strong early childhood education. It’s really a marker for what’s gonna happen next.”
St. Paul’s is home to three classes of about 20 students each – the threes, the fours and the kindergarten/fives. The 60 students attend the preschool from 9 a.m. to noon, five days a week.
“When you come here for four hours of your day, you don’t have to think about anything else but little children and their wonder and amazement,” said Ann Morton Habliston, St. Paul’s assistant head. “They’re just so innocent but fresh. It’s just very special. I feel very blessed to be here working, plus a little selfish because of what I get personally from each and every child and their families.”
Schafer attributed the school’s longevity to the commitment of its founders in 1948 and its staff throughout the years. While it’s often difficult to hold onto good preschool teachers, most of St. Paul’s all-female staff has been with the school for years.
“Continual staff turnover does not lead to stability of the school,” Schafer said. “We’ve always stuck to the same principle: it’s not daycare, it’s not babysitting, it is early childhood education. To make it look fun and creative takes a tremendous amount of work and education.”
“One thing about the school that’s remarkable to me is the continuity,” said the Rev. Oran Warder, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church since 1999. “Teachers and heads come to stay. In the history of the school, there have only been three heads. Over the 70 years, that’s pretty amazing.”
Although the school is independent from the church, and parish membership is not mandatory for admittance to the day school, Warder said there is a strong connection between the two organizations. The preschool students attend a weekly service at the church in addition to their classes and activities.
Warder noted a “virtuous cycle” taking place at the preschool; he said wordof-mouth among parents, neighbors and friends about their children’s positive St. Paul’s experiences helped to grow a strong and tightly knit community. In his 18 years at St. Paul’s, Warder has had several St. Paul’s alumni tell him they met their best friends in preschool.
“It’s pretty amazing. I mean, do you remember anyone you went to preschool with? I don’t remember a soul, not one,” Warder said.
“You have to go some to lose us,” Schafer said.
Not only do the friendships from St. Paul’s stick, families often have a generation-deep history with the school.
“My family has been a part of St. Paul’s church ever since I can remember, or even before I remember,” said Bruce Rodenberg, a parishioner of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church who taught at the preschool for 25 years before retiring to Richmond, Virginia, a few years ago. In her 25 years, Rodenberg often taught the children of past students.
Although the preschool hadn’t been established in time for Rodenberg to go herself, all four of her children and one grandchild attended. Her memories of St. Paul’s range from performing science experiments with small groups of students to taking care of a pregnant gerbil with her daughter over summer break.
“I think one of the successes of the school is the continuity of the teachers and the program,” Rodenberg said. “Teachers that teach there really love it. We had one teacher who taught there into her 80s – of course, I was in my 70s when I stopped.”
Rodenberg taught kindergarten for years before becoming one of the school’s science resource teachers, a program Schafer helped develop. In addition to the two permanent teachers for each class of threes, fours and k/ fives, the school has various resource teachers including a music teacher, art teacher, science teacher and librarian.
Lisa Eskew is another St. Paul’s parent and 10-year member of the school’s board of trustees whose family has been involved with St. Paul’s Church since the early 2000s.
Her 17-year-old son is evidence of Warder’s claim that St. Paul’s friendships last: he recently went to the T.C. Williams homecoming dance with a girl he had known since preschool.
Eskew said the day school did a good job balancing tradition and history with an ever-changing curriculum.
“One of the hallmarks of the school is that change is really found in the curriculum, adapting to current trends and preparing children for elementary school,” she said. “The way kids can learn and retain information does shift in incremental ways … It’s the kind of thing where you wouldn’t notice it, but what’s going on in the classroom is obviously different than it was six years ago.”
In the face of a constantly adapting curriculum, certain aspects of St. Paul’s have remained the same over time.
“One of the iconic things about the school that we love is that we have a school bus,” Warder said. “That’s been part of the character of the school from the beginning.”
While it is rare for a preschool to have a bus, the late Lucy Hunnicutt, who helped teach the threes class for 50 years, started the program by picking up students in her used Packard. The day school now has a school bus that serves both as transportation for field trips and to take students to and from school.
In addition to the bus, the annual graduation ceremony and holiday celebrations are among some of St. Paul’s established traditions.
“I think back to all three of my children going there for three years and all doing the Halloween parade and Thanksgiving feast and the Christmas play,” Eskew said. “There’s a song, ‘Every Turkey Can Tango,’ that they learned and my husband and I still sing it every year,” Eskew said.
“It’s a testament to the brand that they’ve endured this long,” she said. “I think it all boils down to loving teachers and longstanding tradition.”
In honor of its 70th birthday, the preschool is holding a yearlong celebration. On Sunday, there was a 70th birthday cake at the church’s annual fall festival.
The school also hosts a fundraiser every year for its scholarship program so that finances don’t prevent children from attending. Eskew said this year the fundraiser would honor the school’s 70 years and Schafer’s 35.
In addition to the celebrations, leadership at the St. Paul’s school has set up a Facebook page to invite parents and alumni to share their memories and photos of the day school. Some of the pictures on the page are in black and white and date back to the school’s earliest years.
“It’s a happy place,” Eskew said. “I think for the clergy who work here and just the staff who work here, hearing those joyful noises, even if you’re having a bad day, it can’t be that bad when you’re hearing kids laughing and screaming on the playground.”
“It’s a community school,” Warder said. “It’s part of people’s lives and so I think it was just another really important point of connection for people as they grew up, and asOld Town has developed and changed, it has been this constant right here at the corner of Duke and South Pitt.”
History of St. Paul’s School
In 1948, St. Paul’s Nursery and Day School began as a playgroup, and in the 70 years since it has had only three headmistresses.
Three women from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church started the program with only five students, almost no funding and resistance from other parish members who didn’t want the noise and disruption a preschool would bring to the church property.
“It started here 70 years ago sort of as a ‘mothers’ day out’ program,” the Rev. Oran Warder said.
Thurman Brisben was St. Paul’s first headmistress. Although the preschool had a rough start, the demand for daycares in Old Town slowly increased and by 1951, enrollment grew to 12 students.
As enrollment increased, so did the staff. Lib Kerr, one of its first teachers, divided the students into its still-standing structure of threes, fours and kindergarten/fives. Lucy Hunnicutt, a threes teacher who stayed with the school for 50 years, drove students to and from in her used Packard.
Despite a tight budget and donated equipment, the women running the school established a positive reputation.
In 1970, Susan de Gavre replaced Brisben as headmistress. Under her charge, the school became an independent corporation and began a scholarship program.
Martha Scott Schafer, the school’s current headmistress, took over in 1982.
“It’s lovely,” Schafer said, “and I think part of it is the women who founded the school – and I firmly believe it’s ‘school.’ It’s not some rinky-dinky day school, or you know, a box of crayons with a pad of paper and oh, this looks cute. It’s a school, and it’s meaningful, and it’s worthwhile and values children and relationships.”
Throughout the day school’s history, the goal of its leaders has been to create a loving, stable environment. Collectively, its group of primary and resource teachers bring a total of 140 years of experience to the school.