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 felt they didn't want their children in the five-day sessions offered by the only preschool in the area. They were willing to pay a small fee for materials and a teacher's time and were willing to serve as assistant teachers on a rotating basis. They began meeting regularly in November 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. The basement garage was no longer available, some of the families were moving away, and others had enrolled their children in the five-day sessions at the Hanover Nursery School. But then one parent offered their basement and another suggested there might be space available at the Church of Christ at Dartmouth.
An agreement was reached with the pastor about using 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. By 1965 tuition had risen to $108 a year for the three-day class and $72 a year for the two-day class. In 1967, Alpha Theta Fraternity offered HCNS the use of their backyard for playground space. The first swing set for the playground was bought for $20 (used). The preschool began a tradition of providing baked goods to Alpha Theta as a thank you. Also in 1967, the first scholarships were awarded to families needing assistance with tuition. The preschool incorporated in 1968 and by 1969 Chris Cranston suggested that there be written teacher job descriptions. It's also interesting to note that in 1969 the Board decided to actively seek a "man" to be a member of the Board, but doubted they could find one with the time and the ability to serve!
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.
By the early 1980's, tuition rose to $375 a year for the three-day class and $250 a year for the two-day class, and early bird and lunch programs were added. Towards the end of the 80's, both four-day morning and four-day afternoon classes were added as well. 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. They knew they wanted to add to the program, but didn't want to change the nature of the program, so they did some "soul-searching" and made some very important decisions.
The primary decision made was to move the location of the school from the Church of Christ at Dartmouth to the school's present location on Lyme Road. The president of the Board at the time had a connection with United Development Services (UDS) which was located at 104 Lyme Rd. UDS was looking for a program that would complement their endeavors. Trumbell Nelson did 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 has magnificently held now for the past 18 years. Linda is truly the heart of our treasured school.
Shortly after HCNS relocated, UDS vacated the Lyme Road location and the Dartmouth Organic Farm expanded into its place, which lead to an eventual relationship with the school lasting to the present day. Teachers and their classes often take walking field trips to the Farm to learn about everything from growing vegetables and maple sugaring to barn-raising. Also after the relocation, a wonderful music program was introduced and incorporated into the classroom curriculum. A music teacher still comes to each class once per week and provides a lesson that follows along with the themes of the classroom, teaches music from different cultures and countries, and helps the children present holiday and end-of-year family sing-alongs.
The change of the millennium brought with it some changes at the preschool. The early bird program was dropped and instead the school day began earlier. Family Fun Days began as well as other community-building and enrichment activities. Camp Hamp was created while Jodi Picoult was the president of the Board. Camp Hamp was an enrichment program which also served as a marketing campaign, as it was offered to children across the entire Upper Valley. Sessions such as book making, cooking, and nature programs were offered during both the academic year and summertime. Camp Hamp phased out but the enrichment activities continued for both children and parents.
There has been tremendous growth in the last decade for the school. A soccer program was established which is still one of the only outdoor sports activities for children aged 3-5 years, and is open to all children of the Upper Valley community. HCNS offers numerous enrichment activities throughout the year to enhance the experiences and love for learning for our children and families. Field trips to the Dartmouth Hop and Lebanon Opera House expose the children to theater and music, and field trips to Cedar Circle Farm and Tullando Farm are famously fun and exciting for the children. Our tuition assistance program has tripled and the NAEYC re-accreditation process demands a standard of excellence of our teachers and school that is unsurpassed. 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. Musical instruments, a tee-pee shelter, a Mud Kitchen, and a Zen Garden all utilize natural materials, and are some of the features enjoyed by children at the school today.
Over the school's 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!