Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

Our History
by Zena Yamamoto and Nina Bruhns

Snug in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, about 20 miles northeast of Los Angeles, the town of Sierra Madre has several claims to fame: a one-hundred-year-old Wisteria vine, an earthquake named for it, a minuscule crime rate, and a 60-year-old cooperative nursery school.

60 years ago, World War II was a year-old memory, and many returning soldiers migrated to the west in search of affordable housing. Adjacent Pasadena had established the first freeway system in the nation in 1940, orange groves still flourished, and there was an abundance of simple stucco cottages, fashioned cookie cutter style by developers wanting to take advantage of the GI Bill.

With a four-year-old child and another on the way, newcomer Mary Toms Ward was concerned that there was no nursery school nearby. Inspired by a newspaper article describing a school using parents as classroom helpers, Ward placed a tiny ad in the local newspaper calling for parents interested in that concept. Ward's ad caught the attention of Milton and Harriet Goldberg, Dixie and Dorothy Tiller, Howell and Mabel White, and Rodney and Marion Gale. Together they became Sierra Madre Community Nursery School's five founding families.

Although nursery schools in America had been established before the turn of the century, they were not widely popular. Government-sponsored day care centers had been available during both World Wars, but the idea of a nursery school with the purpose of fostering social interaction and learning through play was not pervasive.

Emily Tempes Cosby, who enrolled her son in 1950, recalls that the idea sometimes drew antipathy from dads. "Some of the men kept saying, 'Women just want more freedom. Moms just want somewhere to leave their kids.'" Tempes laughs, recalling how the idea of a nursery school where parents share in the teaching and work was at times regarded with even more suspicion. "Some people said, 'That's a communistic thing, isn't it?'"

Already well-known in the field of early childhood education, SMCNS' first director Marjorie M. Green brought to the project enthusiasm, expertise and a willingness to experiment - to allow parents to be co-partners in the development of the nursery school.

Among the goals detailed in SMCNS' original charter was the provision that the school would be open to people of all races, colors or creed. Milton Goldberg remembers the group's feeling on this issue. "Sierra Madre at that time was White, WASP, with one Jew," he says, laughingly referring to himself. "We wanted the school to be open to all children - whatever color, whether they had the money or not. Not just rich people." This is a goal SMCNS staff still strongly believes in and pursues today.

Parents and other interested persons built equipment, blocks and climbing structures on weekends until the grand opening of the school, housed temporarily at a local church. A petition was submitted to the city council to have a portion of the adjacent park fenced in for use by the preschoolers, and the city approved. With 25 families signed up, Dorothy Tiller was elected as the first president and doors opened on April 14, 1947. Enrollment soon grew from 25 families to more than 100.

In order to help new teachers and parents adjust to SMCNS' unique philosophy, Marjorie Green, along with Dr. Elizabeth Woods, wrote what became something of a legend in the nursery school world. The first edition of A Handbook for Beginning Nursery School Teachers gave advice on eating, sleeping, toileting, social adjustments, and emotional disturbances.

The book differed from other child development books of the day in that is was a practical guide, and included such pragmatic details as constructing equipment, how to have a staff meeting, and how parents can apply nursery school routines at home. The handbook also included philosophical do's and don'ts, which were respectful of a child's individuality and inherent dignity, promoting the philosophy that growth is a process, not a goal. By 1952, 4,000 copies of the handbook had been sold in the United States and other countries around the world. Profits were donated to the school's scholarship fund.

In 1949 SMCNS was compelled to find a new site, and was offered a piece of land by the city. Euphemistically labeled "water spreading grounds," the near-acre plot was actually a dump. A dilapidated shed was the centerpiece of dusty grounds that featured a collection of broken bottles and other debris. The parents were thrilled. By then it was summer and the school had to vacate its church site by December 31. Milton Goldberg recalls with amazement how the school's nuts and bolts were funded. "We paid for hardly anything. We begged, borrowed and stole," he says with a chuckle.

By February the building was complete and the children were able to enjoy two classrooms, walls of floor-to-ceiling windows, and three large play yards. The surrounding area, with its tall trees and pastoral feeling, added to the sense of a melding of outdoors and indoors and paying homage to nature.

Live animals have always been a part of the nursery school's tradition. Over the years the school has been home to a billy goat, chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs, crayfish, snakes, lizards, birds, rats, mice, fish ducks and even a desert tortoise named Sandy, who in the 50's escaped, triggering a citywide vigil until the tortoise was returned.

Jeanie Price, whose three boys attended in the 1960's believes that one son's career choice had roots in the nursery school. "There were always a number of reptiles in the group," she says. "His teacher, Pat Bush, may have started it all," Price says with a laugh. Doug Price raises exotic reptiles and snakes for a living.

The bucolic setting was not the only thing of which the school boasted. During the 1950's its role as a resource for parent education grew. Once a month, parents could learn about children and music, children's literature, and childhood emotional disturbances. Today this program has expanded into a daily educational discussion, held by the school's director during the parent-helpers' twenty minute break.

Parents from the nursery school remember their work days as being enlightening, changing the way they thought about and interacted with children.

Kathy Snow, who had two children enrolled in 1950, says, "Mostly, I remember my own feelings of insecurity. I remember with such approval and amazement Mrs. Green, and how she dealt with the utter confusion - nothing bothered her. There were easels and paint spilling all over the place and they [staff] acted like it was all perfectly normal. There were kids acting up and Mrs. Green wasn't the least bit perturbed. She would make some little suggestion and they would all do it. She would treat this scene of absolute chaos as if it was wonderful."

Past nursery school parents also speak of the lifelong friendships that grew out of the experience of going to the school with their children.

Edith Dane, who had one daughter enrolled in the 1950's, was board president and then taught at the school for ten years, tells how she and a group of eight mothers still meet monthly as a close-knit circle of friends. Called the Gusset and Gossip Group, or Guzzlers and Gossip Group depending on who you ask, these friends, by now in their 80's, continue to celebrate birthdays over lively luncheons in each other's homes.

In 1952 another class and an office were added to the school, and in 1961, a north building - all built by parents on city-donated land. An afternoon session was started, along with a multi-age group and two kindergarten/pre-K combination classes, which catapulted enrollment up to around 160 families, where it still stands today.

In 1993 the school acquired more neglected city land north of one of the classrooms, and turned the barren space into a garden sanctuary. Parents and friends have endowed it with a multitude of fruit trees, vegetables, and flowering plants. Families built a pergola from beautiful columns rescued from the city dump and a huge 50-year-old beam donated from someone's garage. Paths were built and wooden benches salvaged from the city yard were installed to complete the peaceful setting. Dedicated at the 50th anniversary reunion, the garden serves as an outdoor laboratory for the children, and an open gift to the community.

The phrase 'What can you do to help yourself?' seems to define the essence of the school - the parents, the children, and the program as a whole. Over the years, SMCNS has made some changes. What hasn't changed is the overall sense of community - of family - at the nursery school. As much as the school itself stands as a bequest to the community, so do the animating principles behind it - the ideas of cooperation, of shared responsibility, and of life-long learning. It is a philosophy, a way of life that is apparent and living in the children who have graduated from SMCNS, as well as in their mothers and fathers.

After 50 years, Milton Goldberg still finds reason to look with pride on the school which he helped found. "This is our legacy. Very few people leave behind a legacy that is worth a damn. This isn't a huge corporation, it just evolved out of a spirit of community."

And that nurturing community spirit is what will keep Sierra Madre Community Nursery School thriving into the next millennium for its next sixty years, and beyond.