‘Friends, do you want to play house and take care of my dog?” volunteer Martina Hoyt asks as she raises up a black and white toy dog. The faces of the students at the Nora Stewart Memorial Nursery School immediately light up. The kids are anxious to play, surrounded by miniature stoves and a pink playhouse that says “welcome friends.”
From the names above each cubbyhole to the tiny tables and chairs, the school provides a welcoming learning environment. It opened in 1933 as the Negro Nursery School in a small house in Columbia with 16 students. The number of students has grown to 52 since then . Black students comprise about 62 percent of the student body, with about 32 students.
The school emphasizes black culture and the importance of family. At 11 a.m. Saturday, the school will host a community fundraising event — a Chicken and Chitterling Dinner.
“There will be home cooking with a good family atmosphere,” said director Cheryl Washing Howard.
The nursery school was state-funded for 12 years, until 1945. After closing for two years, it reopened in 1947 with a new reliance on private funding.
“This year we plan to have several fundraiser events,” said Howard. As for the tuition, it is based on a sliding scale; parents pay proportionally according to their income.
For a donation of $6, attendees will get a meal with chicken and, for $7, they can have chitterlings. Spaghetti, green beans, baked beans and more will also be included.
“Many families from within the community will be involved,” Howard said.
“The school has a celebration for every holiday, whether it’s Columbus Day, Martin Luther King Day or Black History Month,” said Naima Miller, whose daughter is enrolled in the school. “I think it’s awesome.”
The school strives to maintain an inclusive focus.
“Nora Stewart is very diverse and accommodates all races,” said Miller. “My daughter has learned to say grace in English and Spanish.”
Head teacher Betty Porter says she’s patient with all of her students. “I just express with my hands and repeat my name and, by the time they leave here, they will be speaking English very well.” About 30 percent of the students at the nursery school are Hispanic.
Porter has been working at the school for 34 years and served as interim director from Jan. 9, 2006, until Howard took the position of director in October. Porter has worked as director of the school since October when she replaced longtime director Mary Jane Davis after her death.
Miller, who attended Nora Stewart Nursery School as a child, now sends her four-year-old daughter, Arion, there.
“I went there when I was younger, and believe it or not, the same teachers were there,” said Miller.
She describes the school’s style of teaching as “home-style schooling.”
“The school provides students with a little extra tender love and care,” said Miller. She says that’s why she chose to send her daughter there. “I know if I ever needed anything, they will look into it and give me advice.” She also likes that her daughter will not have to jump from teacher to teacher.
Over the past 74 years, the school has called a variety of places home , including household basements. It’s currently located at 505 E. Ash St. , near downtown Columbia. Inside, the pastel walls are covered with artwork, the window sills with plants and the shelves with numerous books and movies. There are multiple televisions, boxes filled with crafts, huge stuffed animals and a record player. The nursery feels more like a home than a school.
“We are like a big family,” said teacher Brenda Crum, whose grandchild also attends the school.
‘SWEETIE-PIE COME HERE, DID YOU WIPE YOUR MOUTH?’
“I wanna start. I wanna start,” yell the children sitting in a circle on the colorful rug at the front of the school room. They are playing telephone — each child whispering the same phrase to the next.
“Tell him nice and plain so that he can understand your words,” said Crum.
The students giggle as they try to relay the phrase, “Let’s play outside.” Although no one got it quite right, they all get to go outside to play when the game is over.
At the same time, 2- to 3-year-olds are having snack time in another room.
“Sweetie-pie, come here. Did you wipe your mouth?” asks Porter.
Her students sit in the tiny chairs at tiny tables as they enjoy their cookies and milk. Some were more eager to finish than others. Those who finished first gather on the alphabet rug in the center of the room. They wait with their heads raised high in anticipation of story time.
Hoyt says that she thinks her school is unique and the teachers show a balance of care and discipline.
Teachers at the school strive to fulfill the school’s mission of ensuring students a successful academic and social development experience. Volunteer groups, such as Jumpstart, provide additional support and attention to students from low-income families.
Under Howard’s direction the school is making plans for building renovations that include replacing the roof and introducing more technology in the school. Howard says she thinks of her role at the school as her calling. “The school already has a proud past and a dynamic future in the plans for the school,” she said.