PreSchool Priorities

Tim Peterson has fond memories of growing up in Tiburon, of riding his dirt bike through the undeveloped hills and casting his fishing line directly into the bay.

Now 42, Peterson has returned to his hometown to raise his own family. Although Tiburon has changed much since his boyhood, Peterson expects his daughters will enjoy one thing that has remained the same: the Belvedere-Hawthorne Nursery School. Just as her father did years before, three-year-old Fiona attends the preschool, as will one-year-old Riley when the time comes.

“I walked into the place and it was the craziest déjà vu feeling I’ve ever had,” says Peterson. The art room, circle time, the whole routine of happy days spent there came rushing back.”

Founded in 1939, Belvedere-Hawthorne has launched the education of thousands like Peterson. The school, which has the distinction of being Marin County’s oldest independent nursery school, now has a dedicated following among parents—and the wait list to prove it. Yet like schools at all levels, from preschools to colleges, it must continually raise money to support its programs.

Preschools can have a more difficult time fundraising than their upper-level counterparts. Since children only spend a short while there, few alumni remain as connected as they are to their other schools. And these days parents of schoolchildren face donation requests from a range of institutions. So preschools must be creative, something Belvedere-Hawthorne has done by turning its annual fundraiser into a community event—the Valentine Kitchen Tour.

The event, now in its 29th year, features the hottest trends in kitchen design. Last year it drew 1,200 people and raised about $100,000 for scholarships, building maintenance and improvements, and financial support for the teachers. This year’s tour on February 6 will include six kitchens in Belvedere and Tiburon homes.

Peterson will join hundreds of parents and other community members as a volunteer for the tour; his wife, DeeDee, handled publicity for the parent organizing committee. It’s that type of dedication that has contributed to the success of Belvedere-Hawthorne, which began as a Works Project Administration project under the New Deal.

The school, founded by Belvedere resident and historian Beverly Bastian, “was designed to provide local children with developmentally appropriate learning environments,” says executive director Beverly Stephens. That tradition continues today, with children grouped according to age and activities planned around themes that resonate with those ages. The pre-kindergarten students, for example, learn about such topics as space and whales through art and music projects.

Since its beginning, Belvedere-Hawthorne has been governed by parents. The volunteer board is made up of parents of students. This type of involvement allows the school to keep up with the times, says Stephens, and support its teachers, many of whom have been with the school for more than ten years, a rarity in a field known for its high turnover.

Two other longtime Marin preschools also point to the partnership between parents and teachers as a primary key to their success. Strawberry Preschool and Tamalpais Preschool both turn 50 this year, and the joint board of parent trustees is celebrating the milestone year with the schools’ first capital campaign.

Each school has a fundraising target of $50,000. At Tamalpais, the money will pay for playground equipment; at Strawberry, playground improvements and school technology will be funded.

Tamalpais and Strawberry do not hold large fundraising events. Instead, the schools have sent “invitations to donate” to current and alumni families from the past ten years. The campaign represents not only a chance to help current and future preschool students, but also a way to honor the schools that have meant so much to the students and their families, says Cate Biggs, president of the board of trustees.

“We feel such a commitment to Tam,” says Biggs, “not only for the wonderful experiences and introduction to school that our daughters received…but also for the education we as parents received. Preschool is your first foray from the netherworld of Gymboree, playdates, and errands into the world of school, and what a fabulous orientation we had at Tam—learning to support our daughters as students, interacting with teachers and other parents.”

That supportive environment is what Beverly Bastian had in mind when she founded these schools as well as Belvedere-Hawthorne, says Teri Moss, director of Strawberry Preschool. Despite the changing times, the overall philosophy of the schools remains very similar to Bastian’s original principle: focus on the whole child, including cognitive, social and emotional well-being.