Impasse: Hill Institute trustees say kindergarten won’t reopen, but community group wants further discussion

  • The historic Hill Institute in Florence; it once housed the first free kindergarten in the United States. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Hill Institute kindergartner Col Brody of Northampton gets a farewell card from teacher Karen Sullivan at a graduation ceremony in June. Hill Institute trustees have decided to close the school. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Tara Tetreault Brewster, left, and Kate Bouthilette Cardoso outside the Hill Institute kindergarten in Florence. The two friends have led a grassroots campaign to keep the historic school open. The campaign’s logo references a hand print all graduates make. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Businessman and philanthropist Samuel L. Hill created and endowed the free Hill Institute kindergarten in Florence in 1876 — the first such school in the country. Photo courtesy Forbes Library

Staff Writer
Published: 8/6/2020 2:11:07 PM

FLORENCE — Two months ago, after news broke that the historic Hill Institute kindergarten was going to close after almost 150 years of operation, two local women who had attended the school launched Hands for Hill, a grassroots effort to keep it going.

And after soliciting about 1,700 signatures from people who shared that goal, Tara Tetreault Brewster and Kate Bouthilette Cardoso had hoped they might get the Hill Institute’s board of trustees to change its decision; they also offered to help the board boost student enrollment and secure grant funding.

But in a recent statement to the community, Hill Institute board members say their decision is final. The kindergarten, undoubtedly a unique program when it opened in 1876, has now been supplanted by “local public schools [that] are meeting and providing the needs of kindergarten students,” according to the statement, which was provided to the Gazette.

“The Trustees have not taken the closing of the kindergarten lightly, and have in fact sought legal counsel to ensure that the integrity and longevity of the Hill Institute remain intact through this time of change,” the statement reads.

Edward Welch, trustee chairman, said in a recent interview that he understands that many people who attended the school, such as Brewster and Cardoso, or had other family members attend, “have an emotional investment” in keeping the free kindergarten open.

“It has a great history — I understand that,” said Welch, who has served on the board for 20 years. But pointing to declining enrollment in recent years, and a class size that’s been limited to 13 students, he says the expense of keeping the kindergarten going — over $170,000 a year — is not warranted, given kindergarten classes are now part of all local public and private schools.

The Hill Institute also offers a range of fee-based arts and crafts programs for adults — programs that were added well after the kindergarten opened — that attract more than 1,000 people annually. Welch says the trustees see that programming, and additional craft programs envisioned for youth, as the institute’s primary focus today.

In a followup interview, Brewster and Cardoso say they’re disappointed but not surprised by the trustees’ decision. They met with Welch and two other board members in late June to discuss some of their proposals, including using social media to better publicize the kindergarten to attract more families, but they say those offers were rebuffed.

Then came an invitation, from one board member, to attend a July 17 trustees’ meeting — followed, Cardoso says, by a phone call from Trustee Treasurer Kenneth Deso that rescinded the invitation.

Brewster and Cardoso, who grew up in Florence and attended the Hill kindergarten in the mid 1980s, still live in town and between their two families have had three of their own children attend the school. They see it not just as a key part of local history — a place where many in town had their earliest school experience — but a vital cog in the community’s public education system.

“We’re looking at a shortage of classroom space [in Northampton schools] and a loss of day care programs, too,” said Cardoso, referring to the recent closing of the Sunnyside Early Childhood Center program due to financial problems. “Why would you close classroom space now?”

“I think we’re still trying to understand why the trustees have made this decision,” said Brewster.

An historic school

The Hill Institute kindergarten was opened in 1876 by Samuel L. Hill, a successful businessman and philanthropist in town who was also a civic leader and a champion of progressive causes. He was inspired to create the school after learning of “play gardens,” an idea advanced by German educator Friedrich Froebel for teaching young children.

It was the first free kindergarten in the country, at a time when early education was generally reserved for the children of wealthy families. Hill stipulated in his will that children ages 3 to 7 could attend “without distinction on account of race, nationality or previous condition.”

That will is now at issue. For instance, Brewster points to a section of the Mass General Laws governing trusts, known as “Duty of Loyalty,” that states “A trustee shall administer the trust solely in the interests of the beneficiaries.” As she sees it, the original beneficiaries of Samuel Hill’s will, written in 1884, “were the kindergarten students, not adults attending art classes.”

However, a section of Hill’s will also states trustees are obligated to provide the necessary funds each year for the kindergarten, an amount that “is to be extended and continued indefinitely or discontinued, at the discretion of the Trustees.”

Welch says money is not the issue; the current endowment of the Hill Institute is $8 million. He says Chris Hammel, the institute’s director, has had to spend much of her time overseeing the kindergarten, even though far more people are involved in the arts and craft classes (Hammel also teaches weaving in that program).

Brewster and Cardoso have outlined a series of steps they believe could help relieve Hammel and the trustees of some of that administrative overhead, such as creating a robust social media presence for the program and promoting it to help boost enrollment — something both women say they and others in town are willing to do.

Indeed, others in the community have echoed the concerns about the kindergarten. Margaret Riddle, a former teacher and principal in Northampton elementary schools, as well as a former Northampton School Committee member, wrote the board last month to fault what she says was its lack of public disclosure in deciding to close the school.

“It is not a surprise that the decision ... has been met with dismay, disbelief, and an unwillingness to accept it,” Riddle wrote. “Caring and involved citizens have offered to participate in seeking alternatives and helping to promote participation in the program ... I hope you will at least pause the decision and allow the important community input that will create lasting good will for Hill Institute into the future.”

For the moment, Brewster and Cardoso are hoping trustees might consider some other steps, such as bringing on four new board members (there are eight altogether) of greater diversity in age, race and background (Cardoso says five of the current trustees have been on the board close to a collective 84 years). Another suggestion is to have the Hill Institute donate the money previously allocated to the kindergarten to other early childhood education programs in Northampton schools.

In a follow-up email, Cardoso said she and Brewster would be happy to serve on the board themselves “because we know that what we’re asking isn’t easy. We have said to the Board in all of our communications that we want to help them re-envision/re-imagine the [kindergarten] program because there will be a lot of work involved in that and we have energy, passion and resources to share.”

Or if other people in the community “are better able to do that, we are in full support of them being involved instead of and/or in addition to us,” Cardoso added.

She and Brewster say they’ve also reviewed the issue with a local attorney but don’t want to “mediate” it in court — although some in the community have called for doing just that, Cardoso added. A legal challenge to the closing of the kindergarten “is not out of the question,” she said.

For their part, trustees feel they’re on solid ground in their decision and have acted “with diligence in preserving and growing” the original endowment for the Hill Institute, while also “follow[ing] the goal of education for young children and parents in an inclusive setting. We will be exploring new ways to meet the needs of children and families in our community.”

As their statement concludes, “The Hill Institute will continue to offer and expand the classes that remain in popular demand which ‘promote the well-being and elevation of humanity’ and best serve the entire community, which is the broader focus of Samuel Hill’s vision.”

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


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