In the fall of 1962, a group of neighbors in Norwich, VT formed a playgroup for their three-year-old children and met in their homes a few days a week. The parents wanted a situation more structured than the neighborhood group that was already playing together but didn't want their children in the five-day sessions offered by the only preschool in the area at the time. The group began by funding necessary materials, a teacher's time, and also by serving as assistant teachers on a rotating basis. They met regularly in the ground level basement garage of one of the families. The modest space was accommodating; there was a low, large table for crafts, a couch for reading stories borrowed from the library, and a spot for a record player. Materials and supplies were basic consisting of drawing paper, crayons, chalk, and borrowed puzzles. Storage was the trunk of one of the parent's cars. When the year ended everyone assumed the playgroup would end, too.
Given the success of the group, one parent offered their basement and another suggested there might be space available at the Church of Christ at Dartmouth. An agreement was soon reached to use the preschool room at the Church of Christ. The parent group firmed up rules about participation and tuition, adopted the name "Hampshire Cooperative Nursery School", and opened in the fall of 1963 with a class of twelve three-year-olds.
HCNS obtained state licensing in 1970 and created the head teacher role to assist the president in running the school. One of the most important and fortunate decisions of the school's history was when Sue Denhartog was hired in 1968 as a teacher. In 1970 she was named head teacher, and developed and nurtured the role for more than 2 decades.
In 1987, HCNS became the first early childhood program in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine to become accredited by the National Academy of Education for Young Children (NAEYC). This was and still is a distinction shared with relatively few programs nationwide.
Patricia Wells Knowles became the Director after Sue Denhartog and led the 30th anniversary celebration for the school. The Valley News dedicated a full-page article with pictures on the front page of the "Close-Up" section to acknowledge the remarkable occasion. At that point, the school was growing rapidly and needed to expand. Patricia Wells Knowles along with the Board of Directors enlisted the help of the Tuck School at Dartmouth College to develop a study to help determine the future of the school. This study led to the decision to move the location of the school from the Church of Christ at Dartmouth to the school's present location on Lyme Road. Trumbell Nelson led the renovations to make the space more accommodating for a preschool, which is how we now see the school today.
Linda Shemanske became the Director in 1995 and her very first endeavor was to pack up and move the entire school to Lyme Road. Linda joined the HCNS community as a parent in 1983-84 when her daughter was enrolled in the preschool. She was hired as a teacher in 1986 and was ready for a change towards the end of the 1995 academic school year. It was perfect timing for her to take on the role of Director, which she magnificently held now for 18 years until our current Director Meg O’leary assumed the role.
There has been tremendous growth over the last 2 decades for the school. A soccer program was established and Summer Camp programs created ~ both of which are open to all children of the Upper Valley community. HCNS has offered numerous enrichment activities to enhance the experiences and love for learning for our children and families. Field trips to Cedar Circle Farm, maple sugaring with Dartmouth Organic Farm students, hikes guided by members of the Hanover Conservancy are just a few of the famously fun and exciting opportunities for the children. The school's outdoor space has been transformed to create a play environment rooted in nature, based on the belief that children thrive when they spend time with the natural world. Our tuition assistance program has tripled with generous support from the Dorothy Byrne Foundation and the Couch Family Foundation.
When Covid-19 hit our community in March of 2020, we were forced to close our doors for several months This did not stop the teachers from finding creative ways to stay connected and provide an enriching virtual experience for the children. As with all storms of life, there is always a silver lining to be found. For us, it was sharing our building with Toddlers Morning Out in the fall of 2020 so that both programs were able to run portions of our programs that met Covid-19 protocols and kept children, families and staff healthy and happy. This cooperation led us to the decision to find a new location where we could together meet the needs of families of young children in the Upper Valley. With our upcoming move, we look forward to holding on to all that makes HCNS a place for children to explore, create, grow, and enjoy being a child. We will continue to be a play-based and child-centered program while integrating our love for the outdoors and all the enrichment it brings to our lives. We are excited about new programs that we will be adding, and look forward to numerous opportunities that will come our way.
Over the school's first 50 years, there have been 20+ teachers and hundreds of very committed parents who have dedicated their time and energy to making the school the success it continues to be. The next 50 years should be just as exciting and nurturing for our children and families as the first amazing 50 years have been!