Gazette Article by: Mary Bell
Appeared in the Gazette: Winter 1999
In 1926, when Henry Ford was still making parts for the Model T and Charles Lindbergh had yet to fly solo across the Atlantic, two educational pioneers, Dr. Carleton W. Washburne, superintendent of the Winnetka Public Schools, and Rose Alschuler, a national leader in nursery school education, met to discuss the value of pre-primary education. After Mrs. Alschuler described a nursery school unit she had established in a Chicago public school, Dr. Washburne asked that she do the same in the village of Winnetka.
Based on the belief that a nursery school housed within a public school could benefit both the teaching staff and children, the Winnetka Public School Nursery (WPSN) opened its doors in 1927. Temporarily housed in Greeley School, it was one of the earliest such schools in the United States.
In 1928, due to the generosity of Rose and Alfred Alschuler, a nursery and junior kindergarten wing was added to the new Skokie School. Incorporating the ideas suggested by nursery school and kindergarten teachers, Alfred Alschuler, a well-known Chicago architect, designed the classrooms, kitchen, offices, outdoor playgrounds, and specialized play equipment.This practice of seeking faculty suggestions, an innovation at the time, has been followed in subsequent building programs of WPSN and the Winnetka Public Schools.
The school’s initial programs reflected the willingness to innovate and experiment to meet the needs of young children and their families. WPSN was established as a not-for-profit school dedicated to the following objectives: sound child development, family life education, service to the community, and research. The publication of several books grew out of research projects conducted at the school.
WPSN also developed a close relationship with the junior high through Child Study classes. Eighth grade students observed in the nursery school, and preschoolers paid reciprocal visits to activities within the junior high.
Parent education and the school-family relationship were valued components in fostering children’s individual growth and development. In 1963, Washbume summarized the significance and impact of preschool education, stating: “Nursery schools at their best are the most perfect education we have today. The child’s physical, intellectual, emotional and social well-being are seen as an interdependent and integral whole. Such nursery schools become laboratories for research in child development and a center for study by teachers of all levels, by parents, and by students preparing to teach.”
WPSN has spent all but the 1980s in Skokie School, when an increasing student population necessitated a move to Crow Island School. Back in Skokie School since 1991, the nursery school occupies the former industrial arts wing, which was transformed into an inviting learning space.
The evolving curriculum reflects research in the ways children learn and develop, integrating aspects of Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, brain research, and the preschool programs of Reggio Emilia, Italy. “Beginning Together,” a new program for 2-year-olds and their parents/caregivers, will be offered in the 2000-2001 school year. With weekly discussion groups, it will emphasize the parental role in scaffolding their children’s play and learning. Consultants in speech language development, occupational therapy, and psychology will provide additional expertise to teachers and families.
WPSN is currently redesigning its playground to create an outdoor learning environment where children can explore art, science, nature, and dramatic play, as well as develop physical skills and competence. Construction will be completed prior to the start of the 2000-2001 school year.