When Sylvania resident Jen Beaudoin was looking for the right preschool for her three children, a cousin in Seattle recommended she find a place that encouraged her to be part of their educational experience.
A year later, Mrs. Beaudoin was sitting at a table at Olivet Christian Nursery School assisting students with a gift-wrapping project that lets them practice fine motor skills and communication. It was her day to be a parent helper in her 4-year-old daughter Evie’s class.
At Olivet, parents, grandparents, and other caregivers are encouraged to spend time in their child’s classroom. It’s been a key part of the cooperative preschool’s mission since it opened 50 years ago.
“For me to be able to be involved and to see my child interact socially and get to know all the kids, I think it allows for a more united classroom,” Mrs. Beaudoin said.
The cooperative preschool was founded in 1967 by Olivet Lutheran Church member Virginia Wiese at the request of Pastor Philip Antilla. It’s a half-day preschool in Sylvania preparing children ages 3-5 for kindergarten.
Much has changed in the decades since that first year — there’s now five classrooms and a more rigorous curriculum — but much has stayed the same. There are still field trips and annual eye exams, there’s a focus on play-based learning, and parent board members and volunteers are key.
“When you’re in there, for the first 15 minutes the kids know you’re there, but through that two-and-a-half-hour period, they just get into their friends and playing,” parent board member Sara Longardner said. “You get to see them interact in their own world.”
Director and teacher Jennifer Crooks said the school’s co-op aspect is what drew her to enroll her children in the program when they were young. She has a master’s degree in education, and knowing what the kids were being taught in the classroom was important to her.
“It was just an attractive thing for me to be part of their education, to see what the teachers were doing, to meet the teachers, and to see who they’re with,” Mrs. Crooks said.
Now as a teacher, she sees the other benefit to the co-op. Having an extra adult in the class makes the day easier, and, more importantly, it gives teachers a better idea of the children’s lives outside of school, she said.
“It’s fun for us teachers to get to know the parents a little bit better to help us understand the students as well,” Mrs. Crooks said.
Parents are assigned different days to come in as helpers, and those who send their kids to Olivet five days a week get more time in class than those whose children attend only two or three times each week. And it’s not just stay-at-home moms who come to class. There are working parents, single parents, dads, aunts, uncles, and babysitters.
For Mrs. Beaudoin, getting to know the other parents, as well as their children, sparked an unexpected support group between Olivet families.
“We’re all going through the same challenges as parents,” she said. “People have dealt with what you’re dealing with, so you always have an ear or advice when you need it.”
While still associated with the church, the preschool is its own non-profit entity.
The pastors visit the classrooms, particularly during the Easter and Christmas seasons, and the children pray before they eat their daily snack. But the curriculum adheres to the state’s early learning and development standards and teachers are in contact with area kindergarten classrooms to ensure they’re properly preparing the kids.
Fifty years after Olivet’s founding, there’s a renewed push for more early childhood education, and Mrs. Crooks said she understands why.
“It’s important because they are learning not only handwriting and academics, but the social aspect of it is so important,” she said. “I think it prepares them socially, as well as academically, for being thrown into a full day of kindergarten.”