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DPNS: 65 years of learning through play

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Cambria Bertolero, left, and Aubrey Hibbard enjoy some playground equipment at DPNS' Eighth Street campus. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

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From page A1 | March 02, 2014 |

The year was 1949.

Harry Truman was president. Earl Warren was governor. UC Davis was known as the Northern Branch of the College of Agriculture and the population of the city of Davis stood at about 3,500. That’s when a group of Davis parents began talking about the possibility of a different kind of preschool for their children.

They had heard about a parent-participation nursery school in Berkeley and liked the model: Parents worked with children in the classroom one morning a week and attended regular adult education classes focused on child development and behavior.

It was a win-win idea, they figured: By enrolling in the Davis school district’s adult school, parents would bring in state Department of Education funds to help finance the preschool, all while improving their parenting skills and playing a direct role in their children’s education.

Later that year, some 50 parents attended their first parent education class, an evening program held at Davis High School, which was then housed in the current City Hall building. The class was taught by the late Margaret Kleiber, a UCD child development instructor and one of the founding parents of the Davis Parent Nursery School.

According to a September 1949 article in The Enterprise, “Many parents departed (from the class) confidently reassured that problems they thought peculiar to their own child were decidedly common to children in general.”

Sixty-five years later, thousands of Davis parents have followed in their footsteps, and the original model remains largely unchanged. Parents still enroll in the Davis Adult School (though they no longer earn Average Daily Attendance funds), still attend monthly parent education nights and still work in the classroom on a regular basis.

The location of the classroom itself is one of the things that has changed over the years. The original Davis Parent Nursery School was housed for more than two years in six Army surplus tents on property surrounding the Boy Scout Cabin in downtown Davis. Kleiber taught the class with the assistance of parents, who also helped outfit the school by collecting donations of toys and furniture.

Meanwhile, funds were raised to construct a permanent building on Eighth Street property lent to the nursery school by the Davis school district. Ground was broken there in October 1951 and the facility opened for business six months later, with parents involved every step of the way, painting, landscaping and building play structures, just as they do today.

Nora Sterling, a DPNS teacher from 1956 to 1983, remarked years later that, “although we started out putting together something for our children, I think we ended up having something that was equally valuable, if not more valuable, to the parents.”

Increased demand from local families led to a secondary campus opening in a series of different locations around town, beginning first with the Davis Community Church, then later Valley Oak Elementary School, a downtown location on C Street and finally the current location on Danbury Street adjacent to Montgomery Elementary School in South Davis.

Other changes have included DPNS growing from one daily session with 25 participating families to the current format of eight sessions with nearly 150 children. Tuition went from $8 month in 1950 for a five-day program to $336 per month today.

But visit either the Eighth Street or Danbury campus today and you’ll see scenes very similar to what one would have seen 6 1/2 decades ago: Children at play under the watchful eyes of parents and teachers alike, riding tricycles, digging for buried treasure in the sand, painting, reading, swinging — all while following the DPNS mantra of “learning through play.”

And the same things keep drawing families back.

Gene Borack was a DPNS parent back in the 1980s when his son and daughter attended.

“I learned a lot,” Borack recalled as he stood in the yard at the Danbury site recently. “With 30 kids, and working there a half-day once a week, it was a wonderful learning experience for me.”

Now he’s back in a new role, as grandfather to Evan, still working in the classroom every other week and helping with the upkeep of the facilities as well.

“The parents are the same kind of parents,” Borack said, by and large an unselfish lot, willing to give a lot of their time in order to create an ideal preschool experience for so many children beyond their own.

“It’s a choice,” Borack said, “a value system, and it continues.”

Such a believer is Borack that when talking about DPNS to someone recently, he was told, “You talk about this place like it’s something holy or sacred.”

“And he touched on something that’s really true,” Borack said.

Laura Burke might agree.

Burke teaches the two-day and three-day morning sessions at the Danbury site now, but before that she put in six years as a parent and several more as assistant director.

What makes the school special, Burke said, “is the sense of community.”

“It’s hard to imagine Davis without DPNS,” Burke said. “The school has lasted through upturns and downturns in the economy … it requires a lot of time from parents, but the benefits you’ll reap are immeasurable.”

Most preschools these days are play-based, and with good reason, Burke said: Study after study has shown play-based learning programs are the best developmentally, she explained.

“But a huge part of being a play-based program is having a large number of activities for the children to choose from,” she noted. “It would be difficult to have as many opportunities without all the parents present.”

Indeed, the sheer number of choices available to her students was evident one recent morning.

The theme for the day was animals, and the first stop for many of the children as they arrived at school was a table set up with big mirrors and face-painting crayons. A parent was painting a cat face on a little boy; a girl beside her was slowly but thoroughly covering her face with blue.

Nearby, three girls were sitting with another parent making beaded bracelets. In the large play area, children armed with veterinary kits were checking the blood pressure and heart rates of stuffed animals while nearby, three children built a marble maze with a little parent help.

Burke, meanwhile, was sitting where the children always find her when they arrive at school — just inside the front door, waiting to greet each of them, ask how they are, about the shirt one little boy is wearing, or the stuffed animal a little girl cradles.

Back at the face-painting table, a crowd was growing with a couple of parents now assisting children. Several girls were drawing at another table while others played with play dough, and that was just the inside activity, supervised by a handful of parents on duty that day.

Outside, kids were digging for treasure in the sand, riding tricycles — and stopping to fill up with gas — climbing on a play structure and busily operating what might have been a restaurant complete with cash registers in the play house.

Carolina Erlich was not a working parent that day — she was just dropping off 4-year-old Sebastian, then staying for a bit as daughter Kamila, who is in a DPNS play group for those under age 2, looked enviously at all the activities and stopped to check out a few.

Erlich said she hadn’t really planned on DPNS for her children’s preschool, but after spending a year in the play group with longtime — and beloved — teacher Sandy Rendig, she stayed on.

Sebastian so completely bonded with Rendig and the school — in a way he’d never done with anyone else before, Erlich said — that she couldn’t imagine leaving.

“He loves it.”

For herself, as a DPNS parent, Erlich said, “the parent education makes me a better parent, for sure. Having the resources … for a first-time parent, it’s super-important.”

Even those parents who seem to arrive at DPNS with a wealth of experience and knowledge find there is so much to learn.

Burke was a secondary school teacher for eight years before coming to DPNS as a parent.

“There was a lot that I learned about child development that was beneficial to me as a parent,” she said.

In fact, Burke added, “it prompted me to go back and take classes in child development and get a master’s.”

Which, in turn, brought her back to DPNS, this time as a teacher.

She follows in the footsteps of a long line of DPNS parents who later became teachers here.

Kathy Douglas retired last year after leaving her mark on the program — a mark that began when her youngest son, Alex, enrolled in DPNS in 1989.

Douglas already had a history as an educator by then, having served as director of the child development center at UC Riverside before attending graduate school in child development at UCD. And when a teaching position opened at DPNS, she stepped in.

In her 23 years teaching at DPNS, Douglas created two new programs that she felt filled voids in the community at the time — the extremely popular play group classes, which parents attend alongside their toddlers — as well as the four-day pre-kindergarten program.

Jackie Radin was another parent-turned-teacher at DPNS.

Radin enrolled her son in DPNS in the early 1970s, in a class taught by Sterling — a class that would inspire her to seek her own teaching credential and embark on a 30-year career teaching elementary school students before she, too, returned to DPNS, spending nine years teaching the two-day and three-day programs that Burke now leads.

“I remember thinking at the time, ‘If I can do for other parents just a (fraction) of what Nora Sterling has done for me, that would be a lot,'” Radin recalled two years ago shortly before her retirement.

Sterling, Kleiber, Douglas, Radin, Rendig and the many others who have taught at DPNS over the years have been a big key to the program’s success, Burke said, as each not only passed on all the DPNS traditions, but also served as mentors to the teachers coming up behind them.

In a program run by a board of directors composed of parent volunteers, that teacher stability and legacy has been key.

“It keeps the program consistent,” Burke said. “It feels a lot like when I was here as a parent, because of the system.”

And then there are the alumni, who seem to take the community service aspect of DPNS into many varied places. Helen Thomson took it to the Davis Board of Education, Yolo County Board of Supervisors and the state Legislature, but said at the time of DPNS’ 50th anniversary that her political career began with her terms as DPNS vice president and president in the early 1970s.

Her former chief of staff, Craig Reynolds, attended DPNS as a 4-year-old in 1957 and his parents were members of the original DPNS work force that pitched tents at the Boy Scout Cabin site and later built the Eighth Street facility from scratch. His own son would later attend DPNS as well.

In fact, there are many alumni who enroll their own children years later — alumni like current DPNS parent Erika Cristo, whose two sons have attended DPNS and list riding the bikes and all the artwork as their favorite activities.

Her own favorite memory?

“I remember our teacher Nora Sterling popping popcorn in the yard without the lid on the popper so that popcorn popped into the air and flew everywhere,” Cristo said.

Her mother, Margaret Neu, meanwhile, had her own thoughts on the place of DPNS in Davis.

“DPNS is a preschool,” she said last week. “But let’s not forget that the ‘P’ stands for parent. Not only did I benefit from the experience of working with and observing other children, but continue to this day to enjoy lasting friendships built with other parents. Although most of us from that era are now well into our 70s, many have been and still are active volunteers in Davis.

“As I look back at those years at DPNS,” Neu said, “I always think that those were some of the most happy times in life, enjoying preschool with my daughters. I was teaching band at Davis High at the time. Once in a while I would march the band down Oak Avenue and through the DPNS gate to play songs for the children.

“It was a slower time. Drivers didn’t mind waiting at the stop sign for 100 band kids to cross the intersection, nor did the school care that the band was off site.

“I love being there now, as a grandparent,” she added, “experiencing the DPNS experience all over again.”

Enrollment is underway for the 2014-15 school year, with eight classes being offered: The two-day and three-day morning programs at Danbury; the five-day morning and four-day afternoon programs at Eighth Street; and play groups at both sites. Learn more about the school at www.davisparentnurseryschool.com.

DPNS also will host a 65th anniversary celebration on Saturday, April 5, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Eighth Street site.

— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at aternus@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy

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