Hill Institute to close historic kindergarten

  • Hill Institute in Florence. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hill Institute in Florence. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hill Institute in Florence. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/11/2020 3:18:01 PM

FLORENCE — The kindergarten at the Hill Institute, a landmark in the community that dates back almost 150 years, is closing.

The school, shuttered for in-class instruction since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is scheduled to hold its final graduation ceremony on Friday, in an exercise designed to observe strict safety protocols.

Opened in 1876, the school was the brainchild of Samuel L. Hill, a successful businessman in town who was also a civic leader and a champion of progressive social policies. Hill made the kindergarten free for students in Florence — the first school of its kind in the United States, at a time when only children of the wealthy attended such programs.

Anne Ryan, one of four staff members who worked in the kindergarten this year, said she’s heartbroken the school will be closing. Two of her children attended Hill Institute in the 1990s, she said, as did her father and three of her siblings. She began teaching there two years ago and says she was “overjoyed” to be hired.

Many other people in Florence and Northampton today, Ryan added, can trace their roots to the Hill Institute, where the kindergarten, which offers both half-day and full-day programs, is still free.

“It has such a wonderful legacy in our community, and it’s just a great place to teach and to learn,” said Ryan, adding that the program offers not just a curriculum rich in the arts, science and math but an enviable teacher-to-student ratio. A maximum of 13 students are accepted each year in the school. 

Ryan said she and the other staff members were told March 12 by the Hill Institute director, Chris Hammel, and some of the institute’s board members that the kindergarten would close due to declining enrollment.

“They said declining revenue was not the issue,” Ryan said.

The Hill Institute has also long offered a number of craft and arts programs — fiber arts, painting, basket weaving, photography and more — during the day and the evening for adult students. Those classes do have fees.

Chris Hammel, the Hill Institute director — she also teaches weaving at the center — confirmed that the kindergarten would close but otherwise referred questions about the school to the board of directors. 

Phone messages left with two members of the board, Kathleen Malynoski and Phyllis Bouthilette, were not immediately returned.

Steve Strimer, a worker-owner with Collective Copies in Florence and Amherst and a longtime local historian, said he’s also sad to see the Hill Institute kindergarten shut its doors. It’s the oldest endowed kindergarten program in the country, he said, one that can trace its philosophical roots back to the transcendentalists.

Regarding the closure of the historic kindergarten, he said, “This one really hurts.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.
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