The children at University Covenant Nursery School seem to think Amy Duffy has a pretty special job — not to mention one she’s quite good at.
Often one of the first people to greet students when they arrive at the school, Duffy will hold the door open for them as they enter.
“A lot of them think that’s my job,” she said recently.
“They write me notes that say, ‘Thank you for holding the door’ and ‘You’re a good door holder.’ ”
Little do they know, Duffy is far more than that, particularly when it comes to this preschool.
Back in August 2005, Duffy co-founded the nursery school, which started with three staff members and a single class of 16 children and has since grown to 12 staff members and five classes serving 76 children. Over the past decade, 430 children have passed through these doors, spending their days making new friends, riding bicycles, drawing, singing, building with blocks and much more.
On Friday, April 11, all of those alumni and their families will be invited back to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the preschool, and much of it is thanks to Duffy.
Duffy was teaching kindergarten and first grade in Woodland when she came to see the importance that preschool plays in children’s success.
She was working at a school in Program Improvement where many of the children had never attended school before arriving for their first day of kindergarten.
“I saw the weight of them not being ready for kindergarten,” Duffy recalled.
Then, when her own daughter was becoming old enough for preschool, Duffy ran into the hard reality of preschool life in Davis — full sessions and waiting lists for many programs. The irony wasn’t lost on her.
“I thought, ‘My own daughter might not go to preschool!’ ” Duffy said.
She ensured that wouldn’t happen by opening a small preschool in her home.
Then, after University Covenant Church was built, discussions began about opening a preschool on site. Duffy signed on to make it happen in 2004.
That first year, she served as co-director and co-teacher with Alysa Meyer. Together, with the assistance of a student teacher, Duffy and Meyer taught a pre-kindergarten class of 16 students. The next year, the school added a class for 3-year-olds.
Now, they have three pre-K classes, each with 16 students and two teachers each, and two 3-year-old classes with 14 children and two teachers apiece.
Duffy herself has become the full-time director, leaving the teaching to a dedicated staff, most of whom have been at the preschool for years.
“But they’re nice about letting me come in and read stories,” Duffy said.
Stories, of course, are just one part of the busy day of UCNS preschoolers.
The program for the 3-year-olds is very open, with students self-selecting the activities they wish to do, though all participate in short circle-times as well.
In the pre-K program, children still choose their activities, but begin to learn the basic skills needed for kindergarten: how to line up, rotate through activities in groups, solve problems, listen.
“I’m all about play,” Duffy said, “but having taught kindergarten, I have really strong ideas (about what they need to learn). They can’t just ride bikes for three years.”
The end result at UCNS is children who enjoy their preschool experience, but enter kindergarten with the skills necessary to navigate a more academic setting.
That’s something that appealed to parent Nicole Fleming.
A former teacher herself, and now chair of the UCNS board, Fleming said she loves the balance the program has provided for her son, Nicholas, with a lot of play when he was in the 3-year-old class last year, and a little more structure this year.
“It really gets them ready for kindergarten,” she noted.
And he loves it.
“He never wants to miss class,” Fleming said. “One day he had to miss to go to the doctor and he was so sad.”
Fleming also likes the social and emotional skills Nicholas has learned and is now passing on to his little sister — skills needed to resolve disputes and appropriately express feelings.
“He’s taken those home and taught her, and it makes my job easier because they can work it out themselves,” Fleming explained.
The preschool serves primarily Davis children, but with a sprinkling of kids from Dixon, Natomas, Woodland and elsewhere.
It’s also a mix of church members and non-members.
Religious lessons in class may include learning some Bible verses and stories, and character development is particularly emphasized, with classes focusing on different character traits every month, like kindness or, last month, courage.
“We have children of all different faiths here so it works well for everyone,” Duffy said, adding that “the idea from the beginning was to have a mix of church and non-church families.”
Classes run from 9 a.m. to noon in the morning and for the one afternoon class, from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m., and involve everything from snack time to outdoor playtime, as well as music, art and free play.
The school has grown in popularity over the past 10 years, such that there are now waiting lists for classes, though there are generally openings for the afternoon class, Duffy said. And church members do not have priority in enrollment, since the school wants children of all faiths and backgrounds.
And while Duffy herself is no longer teaching, that doesn’t mean the school isn’t continuing to benefit from her expertise in early childhood education. Nor has she stopped developing that expertise.
Last fall, Duffy was one of just a handful of teachers in the United States invited to attend Ci2eye, an international conference held in the United Kingdom in November by Christian Initiatives in Early Years Education.
Duffy was selected because of her growing reputation as a visionary leader in early childhood education.
At the conference, she met with educators from around the world and visited preschools in the U.K.
A striking difference she noticed between American preschools and British, she said, was the priority placed on getting children outdoors.
Unlike in the United States, where the focus is more on how play-based or academic a preschool program, she said, the focus in Britain “is all about how much time they spend outside.”
She described a class of preschoolers pulling on their rain boots and picking up shovels and heading out to a creek to explore.
“It’s about honoring little people’s need to move,” she said. “It opened my eyes to so many things.”
And having the chance to meet with and talk to early childhood educators from around the world was just as enlightening, she added.
“We were all really excited for her,” Fleming said.
Now, UCNS is preparing for its big anniversary celebration and hoping many alumni families will return. They’ve planned a raffle with prizes for each class — the oldest of whom are now high schoolers — as well as refreshments, entertainment from Music Matt and more.
The event takes place on Friday, April 11, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the preschool, 315 Mace Blvd. Email [email protected] for more information.
Registration is now underway for next year’s classes as well. Visit www.ucnskids.com for more details.
Though not a co-op, UCNS does rely on parent help for fundraising and work parties. Tuition is comparable to other non-co-op preschools, Duffy said, and need-based scholarships are available.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy