Tucked away near the bottom of Burdick Hill is a little church building that just celebrated a big milestone last June. It is the home of the Robin's Nest preschool, which graduated it's 40th class of kindergarten ready kids last summer. The little lake view church has housed the school for close to the lifetime of the congregation, teaching kids the basics they need to be successful kindergartners and to be kind and forgiving in a nondenominational Christian setting.
"Every child comes in to the Robin's Nest with their own personalities, their own level of abilities, their own experiences, their own social involvement or lack of social involvement," says Robin's Nest Director Dianne Walter. "When we get a class in the fall, other than some kids who have returned, it's like a bouquet of flowers that you have never smelled the aroma of yet. You get this bouquet of children, and you gradually get to know them. Through trial and error as you are working with them in the classroom setting you start to see that this child has more struggles here, and this child tends to excel here... and you try as much as possible to put everybody on a level playing field, while still meeting each individual need and helping them be the most that they can be at this early age."
The building was originally a home, but with a cathedral ceiling in the great room, it was perfect for a modest-sized church. The layout of the building was a good fit for the needs of the church, but also for the preschool. What looks like a garage on the outside is actually a couple of classrooms and a teacher preparation room for Head Teacher Kathy McDonald and Assistant Teacher Carla Smith. Lansing musician Bob Keefe teaches music in the sanctuary, a flexible space adjoining a kitchen that features a unique orange sink. A spacious, well loved playground is behind the church. The school operates from Tuesday to Friday.
Walter notes that an unusual feature of the school is that parents may choose how many and which days their children will attend. That ads a wrinkle to the task of scheduling, but she says the point is to serve the children and their families as best they can. She is clear that while Robin's Nest has a Christian point of view, it is not preaching or recruiting for any particular denomination.
"It does not dictated to or taught by denominational theologies," says Walter. "The only thing it teaches is what all Christian faiths have in common, and that is a belief in God and his son, Jesus Christ. It's brought in in terms of teaching the children about being kind and forgiving to one another, so those elements and characteristics that Jesus taught -- that's what we're trying to teach to the children as well. And also an understanding of who God is or who Jesus is. It means at Christmas time or Easter time we'll tell the traditional Christian stories around those seasons."
The school was the brainchild of five couples, including Walter and her husband Mike, who had just moved to the area and joined the Lakeview Christian Life Fellowship congregation. The church was based on a philosophy of putting belief into action. Four of the couples had children, but it was the woman who didn't have children of her own who brought her dream of starting a preschool to the others. They took action, and the Robin's Nest opened its doors in 1975, graduating its first class in June of 1976.
Walter was having a baby when the school began, so she could not attend the first open house for parents who might be interested in enrolling their children.
"I was coming home from the hospital. I couldn't attend the open house, and I asked Mike to drive by to see how many people had come to the open house," she recalls. "The parking lot was packed, so we knew that we had provided a need for the community."
The school has been going strong ever since, with classes filled to capacity and a healthy waiting list. While the preschool is permitted a 9:1 student/teacher ratio, which would mean 18 children at Robin's Nest, the numbers are kept down to no more than 16 children per day. Walter says the current teachers prefer the lower number because it allows them to give each child more attention and a better quality of education.
"Each child is so different and so unique that we want to make sure that when that child comes in and when that child leaves that we've met their individual needs," she says. "I don't think they are even aware of all the things they're learning. They're learning all the basics they need for kindergarten-readiness. But they're learning it in such a way that they're just having fun in the process. Their moms and dads are probably more aware as they come home with new ideas and new things that they've learned. Or that they are starting to read words. They feel a sense of pride about that."
Originally the school was targeted at families in need, but the Board of Directors soon learned that they couldn't afford to provide the service that might include transportation, liability insurance as well as staffing and paying the mortgage without opening the school to everyone. They do keep some slots open for families who can't afford the tuition, and provide scholarships as much as they can.
The school uses the Lansing school calendar, including vacation times and snow days. The only difference is that the Robin's Nest starts a week later than the Lansing schools to give parents which children in both more flexibility in starting the school year for each of their children. Robin's Nest classes graduate a week before the Lansing commencement, at the Lansing United Methodist Church because there is more room there for families and friends to attend. Of course last year's 40th graduation was a special celebration.
One of the most important things children learn at the school is how to be part of a larger community, one that follows them as they graduate into kindergarten and their public school experience.
"The kids' favorite part of it is having their own community," Walter says. "They come and make new friends. The parents meet each other. There is a building of community right here among the little ones. Even if we have kids who later go to Ithaca and Lansing schools those kids that go from here to Northeast -- they already know somebody in that kindergarten class, and it's the same with the Lansing community. They see each other at kindergarten orientation and there is a building of community there."
Walter says that she has also learned a lot in her 40 years at the school. She has sent her teachers for training when public school curriculum undergo changes to make sure Robin's Nest is truly preparing the children for what they will find when they get to kindergarten. While the school's origins were in the mothers' knowledge of their children's needs, it has evolved as teachers have come and gone and as public education has changed.
"The program had its roots in the hearts of the people that started it," she says. "We were moms and we all knew what our children needed, and what they were learning and developing into as preschoolers. That overflowed into our understanding. Then, as we sought teachers that had preschool readiness education, that enhanced our understanding. It was always about a team. When the Common Core program came into play we looked at what that means for us. How does that alter us in the way we direct children? We want the children to be prepared for whatever is waiting for them in the public school system. So our teachers went to conferences so we could be sure we were meeting the kindergarten readiness that children really needed."
Now in her 41st year, Walter hasn't lost her passion for teaching young children. She says that the children of former 'Robins' now come to the school, as well as some of their grandchildren.
"The part I love the most is I love children," she says. "My husband and I have seven children. I love kids and I will always have a passion for children. I love seeing children be successful, and I love the pieces of children that are individually themselves."