If "it takes a village to raise a child," it may follow that it takes a community of nurturing and engaged parents to educate one. Such an environment of cooperation and community continues as the mantra of Country Day Nursery since its inception nearly 45 years ago. Still in existence, under its new name Country Day Cooperative Preschool, it will celebrate its 45th anniversary this spring.
"Vivian Gray, a University of Minnesota, Morris librarian's wife, had operated a nursery in her basement but didn't want to continue," said Karla Klinger, who co-founded Country Day, along with Anne Stewart Uehling, in 1965. "Anne and I found out we were both interested in forming [a nursery], but neither of us wanted to do it alone. We decided to do it together."
They adopted the name Country Day Nursery for the Morris school. In the communities where Klinger had taught in Chicago and where Uehling had grown up in Cincinnati, "the exclusive private schools, which really were in the country, were called Country Day Schools," explained Uehling.
Country Day is the longest-operating pre-school in Morris, according to Klinger. At the time Country Day was first formed neither the idea of a cooperative nursery school [nor] preschool education was common, although it was about the same time that the Head Start program was being developed. "There were some who looked upon preschool education as shirking parenting responsibilities; there was lots of debate on a national scale," said Uehling.
"Initially some of the kindergarten teachers were unsure about the idea of a preschool. They envisioned children arriving in kindergarten ready to read and write and creating a severe gap in abilities in the classroom. They were pleased, and let us know, that what did happen was the nursery school children already knew how to hang up their coats, line up and follow directions and served as role models for the other children," said Uehling.
"We needed a teacher and a place to meet," said Klinger. "Esther Grey, a faculty wife and certified nursery school teacher, became our first teacher, encouraged us to form a cooperative and was later instrumental in making it work.
"Calling ourselves a nursery 'school' required us to have a certified nursery school teacher. If the teacher has different qualifications, the 'school' is dropped from the title."
Several entities and individuals that are still part of the Morris community today were instrumental in getting Country Day on its feet. Female leaders in the community, as well as new faculty with young children (UMM had just opened its doors as a public liberal arts campus in 1960), enrolled their children the first year.
"To succeed, we needed to enroll the children of community members as well as UMM faculty children. We knew we were doing well when we enrolled children from the families of a judge, banker, lawyer, teacher, accountant, sports hero and several local businessmen (among others) as well as children of the faculty." said Klinger.
"We had enough children to begin one class of three- to five-year-olds in 1965-66," said Klinger. "Two children under three (my daughter with a November birthday was one) needed permission from the state to attend. The Catholic Church allowed us to hold classes in Newman House (then across from the church) in 1965-66." Father [Nick] Eltgroth served on the first board.
"Anne and I formed a legal partnership first and then a non-profit corporation. I was the first board chair and Anne was the treasurer. Dr. Louise Curtis from the campus' Elementary Education Division was on our first board and encouraged us to create a structure that was not dependent on us."
"From the start we structured a cooperative nursery with parents required to help in the classroom or in other ways. It seems to me some built equipment," said Uehling. Teachers like longtimer Sarla Agarwal were free to teach thanks to parents who volunteered their time and services and a board that managed administrative details, said Julie Eckerle, parent and current president to the board. Eckerle, whose children, Anya (six years) and Katya (four years), have attended the school, is researching and compiling a history of Country Day.
In 1966, the school moved to a large upper room of the Armory, on the site of the current Morris Public Library. "...The old Armory...was a dream spot. The children could ride trikes and play in the spacious basement room. We had two beautiful classrooms upstairs. People in the community donated some wonderful toys including tricycles and a spectacular doll house," recalled Uehling. Sergeant Melvin Wohlers served on the board the second year. Lois Burnes, Helen Briggs, Terry Collins and Dick Bluth, along with many other community members, served on the board or as contributors or cooperating parents.
Then the Armory burned in the middle of the night during the winter of 1966-67.
"The fire department was housed in the Armory along with the National Guard and the roller skating enterprise," explained Uehling. "We had decided not to get fire insurance since our budget was sparse. We lost everything including the dollhouse and trikes. A popcorn machine or something similar had bad wiring, which caught fire after the rollerskating had shut down for the night."
Following the Armory fire, Federated Church, which at the time was located across from Longfellow Elementary School, allowed the school to share their large basement. Later, the church built new facilities with space for Country Day in mind.
"We have shared their facilities since then," said Klinger. "Country Day is indebted to Federated Church for providing a home for more than 40 years."
When more parents of children who were enrolled in the preschool began working outside of the home, the requirement that parents volunteer in the school was eliminated, though parent participation was always encouraged. Today, Country Day has returned to its founding mission as a cooperative school by formalizing parents' volunteerism and, in March 2009, changed its name to Country Day Cooperative Preschool. Active and imaginative three- to five-year-olds, under the watchful eyes of teachers Kristin Grove and Christa Udelhofen, learn about letters and numbers, take monthly field trips to apple orchards, craft paper Valentine people and play imaginary post office while parents volunteer their services each month.
The quality experience that Country Day continues to provide for children, in addition to its cooperative structure, can be cited as reasons that the school has endured for so many years.
"There are enough parents who want their children to have a pre-school experience and are willing to pay for it," said Klinger. "Parents have told me that they appreciate that Country Day is offered at specific times that allow working parents to plan. Committed teachers have taught the classes and committed parents have served on the board. And children have loved it. The school will cease to be when there are no longer enough children to attend or enough parents to care."
Uehling agreed: "[Country Day] fills a need. I want to think a major reason for its success is because of the cooperative structure and parent involvement. If the parents are involved they have more interest in the school and its survival. My thought at the time was that if parents were involved at the preschool level, it will give them that experience to carry forward as their child progresses through the public schools. They will expect to be informed about and involved in their children's education. Country Day has proven that this kind of cooperation will work and does enhance and sustain an educational program."