Hill Institute kindergarten’s decline, closing questioned

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  • Hill Institute kindergartner Col Brody of Northampton listens to science and nature enrichment teacher Karen Sullivan read a special card she made for him during a graduation ceremony for the school’s 12 students in Florence on Friday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hill Institute assistant kindergarten teacher Annie Ryan, left, trades virtual hugs with student Kyle Accuosti in his car during a graduation ceremony outside the school in Florence on Friday, June 12, 2020. Joining Kyle are his mother, Joan Accuosti, and their puppy, Crackers. At right foreground is teacher Karen Sullivan. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hill Institute kindergarten teacher Karen Sullivan, who teaches the science and nature enrichment class, reads a special card she made for student Louis Andreoli during a "drive-thru" graduation ceremony for the 12 students of the school in Florence on Friday, June 12, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hill Institute kindergartner Hazel Kelley-Bagg of Easthampton receives a card made by science and nature enrichment teacher Karen Sullivan, left, during Friday’s “drive-thru” graduation ceremony at the school in Florence. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hill Institute kindergartner Col Brody of Northampton leans out of his car to chat with teachers Karen Sullivan, left, and Jennifer Crowther and school administrator Chris Hammel during a "drive-thru" graduation ceremony for the 12 students on Friday, June 12, 2020, in Florence. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hill Institute kindergarten teachers Jennifer Crowther, left, and Karen Sullivan, and assistant teacher Annie Ryan, right, chat with a student in his car during a “drive-thru” graduation ceremony for the school’s 12 students in Florence on Friday. The cars’ arrivals were staggered at least five minutes apart so each family had a chance to visit with staff. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Lyza and Tony Fennell and their son, Oski, chat with Hill Institute kindergarten teachers during a "drive-thru" graduation ceremony at the school in Florence on Friday, June 12, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Members of the Hill Institute kindergarten staff chat with Cortney Haynes and Michael Smith-Stackhouse and their daughter, June, in their car during a "drive-thru" graduation ceremony for the school's 12 students in Florence on Friday, June 12, 2020. From left are teacher Jennifer Crowther, assistant teacher Annie Ryan, school administrator Chris Hammel and teacher Karen Sullivan. The cars' arrivals were staggered five minutes apart so each family had a chance to visit with staff. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hill Institute kindergartner Olivia Depiero listens to science and nature enrichment teacher Karen Sullivan read a special card she made for Olivia during a graduation ceremony at the school in Florence on Friday, June 12, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hill Institute kindergarten teacher Karen Sullivan, who teaches the science and nature enrichment class, hands a special card she made to student Louis Andreoli during a "drive-thru" graduation ceremony for the 12 students of the school in Florence on Friday, June 12, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hill Institute kindergarten teachers Karen Sullivan, left, and Jennifer Crowther and assistant teacher Annie Ryan, right, greet students and their families at a graduation ceremony outside the school in Florence on Friday, June 12, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

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

Staff Writer
Published: 6/14/2020 7:15:00 PM

FLORENCE — Parents, teachers and other community members are lamenting the closing of the historic kindergarten at the Hill Institute, a school that dates back almost 150 years and was founded with the goal of providing free education to children who might not otherwise be able to attend classes.

On Friday morning, the last graduation ceremony of the kindergarten took place under the awkward conditions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, with parents and students, all wearing face masks, driving up to the outside of the Pine Street school to receive — through their car windows — well-wishes, cards and small gifts from teachers.

But those same parents and teachers have been left wondering about the decision by the Hill Institute’s board of directors to close the kindergarten, which opened in Florence in 1876 and in some of its earlier years enrolled more than 120 students.

As Kevin McQuillan, a parent of two children who attended the kindergarten in the 1990s, joked in an email to the Gazette, “You probably couldn’t throw a stone in Florence without hitting someone who attended.”

According to two of the kindergarten’s teachers, Anne Ryan and Karen Sullivan, staff were told by the Hill Institute’s director, Chris Hammel, and some board members on March 12 that the school would be closing at the end of the semester due to declining enrollment.

That is indeed the issue, says Edward Welch of Northampton, chairman of the board and a member of the panel for about 20 years. In a phone call, he said in the last several years it’s become harder to secure a solid block of students for the kindergarten (enrollment is capped at 13, giving the school, with four staff members, an enviable student-to-teacher ratio).

“It’s been a wonderful school, but its time has passed,” Welch said. “It’s something we’ve been thinking about for a while.”

Welch said the uncertainty created by COVID-19 made planning even more difficult; just six students had been registered earlier this spring for next year’s class, he noted, and there was no way of knowing if the kindergarten could even open in the fall.

“When I first came on the board, we had about 20 students every year, and there was a waiting list,” he said. “But are you really going to commit those same kind of resources for six students?”

Yet people with connections to the kindergarten say they’re disturbed that the closing seems to have taken place pretty much under the radar, in a way that seems antithetical to the open spirit that informed the school’s founding.

Some also question the effort in recent years to publicize the school and recruit students. It’s a program that still is free, and it’s open to students from all of Northampton and surrounding towns.

Welch, though, says Hammel, the director, “has worked very hard to find students. It’s not true that there hasn’t been an effort.”

Hammel, a longtime weaver, also teaches at Hill Institute, which for years has offered numerous craft and arts programs — painting, fiber arts, basket weaving, photography and more — for adult students during the day and the evening. Those classes do have fees.

What might be at issue as well is communication. Page Brody of Northampton, whose son, Col, just graduated from the school, says she and her husband, Jonathan, found out about the closing last month through “an offhand email” from friends who had looked into having their child attend the kindergarten next year, only to find the school would be shut down.

“That was the first we’d heard of it,” said Brody, who added that her son had a “great experience” at the kindergarten, where he was one of just 11 other students and had lots of interaction with teachers (there were four in total during most schooldays, teaching two at a time).

“We wanted a place that would be kind of an extension of his preschool, where there’d be lots of nurturing and that would be small enough that he’d feel at home,” she said. “It was perfect — he made lots of friends, he learned so much, and the teachers were great.

“It’s such a disappointment it will close, both because other kids won’t have the opportunity to go there and because it has this wonderful heritage,” Brody added.

Joan Accuosti of Hadley says her son, Kyle, also had an excellent experience at the Hill Institute, despite the kindergarten having to move to an online/learn-at-home model in March with the advent of COVID-19.

“It is such a loving, warm environment,” Accuosti said. “[Kyle] learned to read, he studied science and math, he developed greater social awareness … I was so happy to have him there.”

She says she also found out only inadvertently that the kindergarten would close its doors, through a connection to someone who applied for a teaching position there and discovered the school was closing.

Accuosti says no one notified her about the closing. “It hasn’t been done very well,” she said. “It just seems a travesty that they’re closing this pioneering school.”

Hammel, the director, referred all questions to the board.

A community school

Opened in 1876, the Hill Institute kindergarten, which at one time was also known as the Florence School, was the brainchild of Samuel L. Hill, a successful businessman and philanthropist who was also a civic leader and a champion of progressive causes. 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.

Hill had previously been a member of the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, the Florence abolitionist community of the 1840s that also advocated for full equality for blacks and women, shared living, and alternatives to rapacious capitalism. He befriended the famed abolitionist Sojourner Truth when she joined the community and helped her buy a home on Park Street.

Hill later created and endowed the kindergarten and the institute named after him — the first classes were actually held in his home on Maple Street — after hearing Massachusetts educator Margaret Peabody lecture about “play gardens,” an idea advanced by German educator Friedrich Froebel for teaching young children.

In his will, Hill stated that he wanted the kindergarten to be free of any “ecclesiastical or theological exercises or influences” and that children could attend “without distinction on account of race, nationality or previous condition.” The presiding goal was the “physical, moral, and intellectual development of children.”

Some wonder if the board of directors is considering opening up the kindergarten space for additional adult classes. Not so, says Welch — rather, he notes, there are some very preliminary plans to use those rooms for language or art classes for teenage students.

Whatever the intent, the school’s closing makes former Northampton District Court Judge W. Michael Ryan of Northampton question whether the board is adhering to the conditions of Hill’s will.

Ryan noted that he and some other residents are having a lawyer review the will to see if closing the kindergarten in turn affects the board’s ability to maintain the adult art and craft classes at the institute. Samuel Hill’s original goal, he said “was to have a school for children, not art classes for adults.”

He also questions what kind of outreach has been done over the years to recruit more students of color. “You can’t tell me that if you asked parents and kids in Hampshire Heights, say, if they’d like to attend a free kindergarten that you wouldn’t get plenty of takers.”

Anne Ryan — she is a sister of Michael Ryan — is one of four staff members who worked in the kindergarten this year. She said two of her children attended the school in the 1990s, as did her father and three of her siblings. She began teaching there two years ago and says she was “overjoyed” to be hired — and is now disheartened the school is closing.

She wrote a letter to the board in early May — a copy of which she provided to the Gazette — outlining a number of steps she thought could help boost enrollment, such as extending the enrollment deadline and advertising the school more widely. She said she’d also volunteer her time to help in those efforts. She says the space was well set up to be used as a preschool as well.

But Ryan said she only received a brief thank-you letter in response, which did not comment on her suggestions.

She said she understands that families have more options for kindergarten today, with full-day classes in the public schools and other private programs such as the Montessori School of Northampton. But she believes the Hill Institute kindergarten still has much to offer.”I’m sorry future generations of students won’t be able to come here,” she said.

Welch said the teachers at the kindergarten “have done a wonderful job” but that the simple reality is that “it had just become too difficult to keep the school running.”

Page Brody, the Northampton parent of one the school’s last students, said she’s been talking to some of the other parents to see if they can come up with an additional way to commemorate the kindergarten and its last class — something more than a drive-by farewell.

“There has to be some way of marking what a unique and historic place this has been,” she said.

And former Valley resident Brian McCullough, a great-great-grandson of Hill who now lives in South Carolina, spoke to the sadness of the loss of a longstanding link to the community’s past: The closing of the kindergarten, he said, “is just a damn shame.”

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

 

 

 

 




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