COLUMBIA — When Cheryl Washington Howard opens a drawer in the kitchen of Nora Stewart Memorial Nursery School, there’s a problem: the drawer has no bottom. It is, in fact, not a drawer at all, but rather an empty shell where a drawer should be.
This kitchen drawer is only one of several building problems that the nursery school has been dealing with for years. In April, however, it took a major step toward fixing some of the problems when it filed an application for $150,000 in Community Development Block Grant money from the city of Columbia.
“We’re a home away from home for these kids,” said Howard, executive director at Nora Stewart. “And obviously we want that home to be safe.”
With the City Council’s budget approval on Monday for fiscal 2008, the nursery school is nearly guaranteed to receive the funding its leaders say they desperately need to make that “home away from home” safer for students.
The grant represents a portion of the $862,000 in CDBG money given to Columbia by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant for fiscal 2008. The money, which is distributed annually by HUD, is designated for public improvement projects and to provide assistance to housing and community facilities in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods.
Nora Stewart is one of 11 projects the Columbia Community Development Commission recommended to the City Council for CDBG grants. Howard said the school will use the money, which is subject to final approval by HUD in the spring, for renovations that “need to be done immediately; not tomorrow, but today.”
The worst of the school’s problems is its leaky roof, which is not only riddled with superficial water damage but has serious structural issues as well.
“It’s not just the water spots; the problem is that it’s still leaking, and now there are potential mold issues,” Howard said.
Kenneth Garr has put three of his 11 children through Nora Stewart. His youngest son, 4-year-old Jonathan, is now enrolled at the nursery school, and Garr said the choice to send him to Nora Stewart was easy.
“I’ve been around this school for years and seen the teachers; this school has always had a personal touch with children,” Garr said. “They have a way of welcoming the kids into the school, and they’re also professionals. These teachers are hands-on,” he continued. “These kids are not down here playing; these kids are down here learning.”
Still, Garr said the roof problems worry him. “Some of these spots, the roof is leaking into these lights, and that’s a major hazard. It’s frustrating knowing that money is being put into the roof, and contractors have taken that money and not actually fixed anything.”
The grant money will also be used to replace the school’s heating and air-conditioning system, which takes up a large part of the students’ indoor play area. It used to be on top of the building but had to be moved because of the roof problem. Plans call for putting it on top of the building again.
The school’s kitchen, which provides two meals and a snack each day for students, is also in bad shape. Gail Thornton, a cook, said out-of-date appliances make her job difficult. She needs new pots, pans and a dishwasher, but the big problem is that the kitchen is designed for a single-family home, not a nursery school. She believes better appliances could cut her preparation time by two-thirds.
“I’d obviously have ... a better stove so I could cook more things at one time,” she said. “ ... Hopefully, I’d also have a bigger refrigerator to store things in.”
The school also needs to replace six doors with holes in them that are being taped together, and the bathrooms need to be fixed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Without repairs, the school could face closure due to safety and sanitation issues. Garr said that would affect his family and many others.
“It would be a major loss. This school helps the low-income people that just can’t afford day care. ... The costs are just ridiculous (elsewhere).”
Nora Stewart has been an institution in Columbia for more than 70 years. It first opened in 1933 as the Negro Nursery School in a small four-room house with 16 students. Today, it stands at Fifth and Ash streets and has about 50 students.
The school’s state funding was cut in 1947, and it now relies on tuition, fundraising and United Way contributions. Tuition is based on each family’s monthly income, starting at $35 per week.
Garr agreed the impact of the school is monumental.
“If this place were to ever close, a lot of people are just going to be done. There are a lot of kids here that just aren’t going to get proper care or nutrition. The food they’re getting here, some kids just don’t have at home,” she said. “I’ve seen some of these kids come in here in the morning, and they go immediately to that breakfast table, because they didn’t eat last night. This is one of these places that God puts here for a reason for people that need it.”
Howard said she realizes Nora Stewart is not the only group that needs money.
“Of course everyone thinks their needs are at the top of the list, and obviously they’re all important, but ours involve our future. It involves the children of today, and their futures will play an important role in the city of Columbia,” she said.
As the third director in Nora Stewart’s history, Howard has also set her sights set on technological improvements. “We have no computers at this time, but we’re highly interested in purchasing computers for the classroom.”