Last month, I walked through the doors of St. Mark’s Chruch on Paxson Avenue, and straight back to 1990.
I hadn’t been inside the building since June of that year—when I graduated from St. Mark’s Cooperative Nursery School—but everything seemed as it was then. The same risers in the auditorium, the same bright-colored classrooms, the same building blocks and wooden chairs and little boxes of apple juice. I wasn’t wearing Ghostbusters sweatpants and white Stride-Rite sneakers, but I might as well have.
Angela Dixon, who teaches the 2 and 3-year olds, noticed me flailing in my time warp, and smiled. She, too, is a graduate of the program—Class of 1966—and knows the look. It’s common.
The nursery school, whose 60th year just ended, has become a mainstay because of this consistency. School director Janet Sullivan has been there for the last 40 years. Her son went through the school, as have her grandchildren. Dixon has taught there for 20 years. Jen Latini, who teaches 4-year olds, sent all three of her children to St. Mark’s. The great-granddaughter of school founder Dorothy Hutton will be attending this year—the fourth generation to be involved with the school. In one recent year, nine of the students were children of graduates.
And they all made the same paper pumpkins and the same handprint plates I and other graduates did. While instruction has transitioned to adapt to the times, very little else has changed since the school moved into the St. Mark’s building in the 1970s. (The school started in 1956 at Union Methodist Church on Quakerbridge Road. A gas explosion in 1970 leveled the church, but miraculously injured no one. Union Methodist and Hamilton Square Methodist later merged to form St. Mark’s.)
Sullivan said the school and its staff are like a family, and like many families, St. Mark’s Nursery School takes its traditions seriously. Some are fun, like the annual cookbook where the recipes for students’ favorite foods run alongside the children’s descriptions on how to make them. But others, like the cooperative nature of instruction, are essential to the fabric of the school.
St. Mark’s is the last cooperative school in the Trenton region, a point of pride for the staff. At a cooperative school, each family helps in the classroom one day every two months or so. (Not every child has a family member who can do this, and there is a non-cooperative option for enrollment.) The benefits of a co-op are as philosophical as they are practical. It means an extra pair of hands helping the teacher, but it also gives family members an opportunity to see their children in the classroom and interacting with other children. This provides the family the chance to see what the teacher sees every day, and gives a realistic picture of what a child’s strengths and needs are. The school also has an open door policy, meaning that families can visit the classroom whenever they’d like. Sullivan said there are very few problems when parent-teacher conferences come around—a rarity today.
Another rarity at St. Mark’s is that every teacher is certified, with degrees in elementary education and a specialty in early childhood. The staff uses their training to focus on more than fact-based instruction. Children will develop their motor skills, learn colors—in English and Spanish—and complete the typical pre-K academics. But, the goal, Sullivan said, is to help every child become the best person he or she can be. This means developing social skills, confidence, self-awareness. The timid students at the beginning of the year are the ones who are the stars of the June graduation concert.
As every parent knows, there are a lot of choices in early childhood education today. Day care and preschool franchises dot our highways now. St. Mark’s—a Hamilton tradition—is not like them. But, in a world of rapid change, that’s not a bad thing.
For more information about St. Mark’s Cooperative Nursery School, call (609) 586-0030.