‘A real community treasure’: Former students campaign to save historic kindergarten

  • Tara Tetreault Brewster, left, and Kate Bouthilette Cardoso outside the Hill Institute kindergarten in Florence. The two friends are spearheading a campaign to keep the historic school open. The campaign’s logo references a hand print all graduates make. STAFF PHOTO/STEVE PFARRER

  • 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, June 12, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Hill Institute GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 6/24/2020 9:48:02 PM

FLORENCE — Tara Tetreault Brewster and Kate Bouthilette Cardoso met over 35 years ago in the historic Hill Institute kindergarten, which opened in 1876 and became the first free, privately endowed school of its kind in the United States.

The two became friends at the kindergarten (Cardoso’s twin brother, Nick, was also in the class) and have remained close all these years; they both still live in Florence, within about a mile of each other.

Now they’re using those close ties to spearhead a community campaign, “Hands for Hill,” to keep the Pine Street school open, after its board of directors recently confirmed plans to close it.

“Our story is not unusual,” said Brewster during a recent sit-down interview outside the school. “We know a lot of other people who have gone through (the kindergarten), whose parents went there, whose children have gone there … This is a real community treasure.”

Brewster’s daughter graduated from the kindergarten last year, while Cardoso’s two children also went to Hill Institute in recent years. Both say their own experience at the school, and that of their children, was instrumental in building strong social skills and a solid foundation for learning.

Since reading reports in the Gazette earlier this month that the kindergarten would not reopen in the fall, the two friends have been reaching out to other community members through social media to gauge interest in an effort to keep the school going.

The initial response has been very good, they say, and this week the friends wrote to the Hill Institute’s board of directors to ask for a meeting to discuss ways they and other community members could help with school enrollment.

In an interview earlier this month, Board Chairman Edward Welch told the Gazette that the kindergarten, which in past decades often had a waiting list, had experienced increasing difficulty in recent years in finding enough students. Though enrollment is capped at 13, just six students had been signed up for the 2020-21 school year before the pandemic hit, Walsh said.

But Brewster, Cardoso and other community members have questioned how aggressively Hill Institute has sought to advertise its program, which includes half- and full-day classes. Cardoso says she, Brewster and others would gladly volunteer their time to publicize the school through social media and other avenues.

“We have a lot of resources to draw on,” Cardoso said. “And we have some ideas for making the school more inclusive, or making a good program even better.”

Cardoso, who ran unsuccessfully for the Northampton School Committee last year, notes that city schools are dealing with funding shortages and other issues, in particular uncertainty about how many students — if any — can be accommodated in classrooms this fall, with the need for social distancing dictated by COVID-19.

“This is not the time to be taking a very valuable kindergarten space, especially a free program, away from parents and students,” she said.

An email message to Welch, the board chairman, was not immediately returned.

The Hill Institute kindergarten was the brainchild of 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.

In addition, Brewster and Cardoso are looking at starting an online petition, one whose signatures they would present to Hill Institute board members to urge they reconsider closing the school.

The Hill Institute also offers numerous craft and arts programs for adult students, which do have fees. That’s prompted a number of residents, including Brewster and Cardoso, to have a lawyer examine Hill’s will; they question whether the board’s decision to close the kindergarten in turn affects its legal right to run art and craft classes at the institute.

As former Northampton District Court Judge W. Michael Ryan of Northampton previously said to the Gazette, Hill’s original goal “was to have a school for children, not art classes for adults.”

Brewster and Cardoso stress that they hope above all to talk to the board. “This is such a unique program,” Cardoso said. “Samuel Hill founded it as a private program to serve the public … we’d like it to continue serving the public.”

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

 




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