By REBECCA ISENHART
Jo-An Palmer walked quietly through the empty halls of the former Union Presbyterian Church on Park Avenue in Schenectady.
Easels, paints, and blocks were packed. Alone, she said goodbye to the place where she had taught 3- and 4-year-olds to explore the world around them at Park Avenue Nursery School for the last 33 years.
The bittersweet moment was short-lived, quickly replaced by hugs, cake, and kids waving balloon sculptures.
With their parents and neighbors, they waited for a grand opening outside of the nursery school’s new home at 943 Palmer Ave., inside the Eastern Parkway United Methodist Church.
When the nursery school’s former home, Union Presbyterian Church, became Mt. Olivet Missionary Baptist Church, the rent for the space became too high for the organization to afford. Palmer worked with Park Avenue Nursery School’s many stakeholders to find a new home.
“My last name is Palmer; we’re on Palmer Avenue. It’s like the stars aligned,” she said.
Luckily for Palmer, she had no shortage of support during the transition to the new space. Park Avenue Nursery School, which retains its name even though its location has changed, operates in a cooperative style. Palmer, the teacher, is one of just two employees; the other is a teaching assistant. All other duties are fulfilled by current and alumni parents, who are unpaid.
The organization’s co-op model minimizes tuition and maximizes family involvement. The cost to send a 3-year-old to the school for a month is just $100; for 4-year-olds, it’s $115. While the comparatively low price tag is impressive, members say the sense of community that grows from having a stake in children’s education is the real reward.
Perhaps the best proof of the bonds created by the preschool is the stack of responsibilities taken on by parents who don’t have kids at the school any longer. The school’s executive board is run by current parents, but alumni moms and dads make up the board of trustees. Even the Eastern Parkway United Methodist Church member who first showed Palmer around the space was a parent of two former preschoolers.
Two moms stood together at the ribbon-cutting ceremony and reminisced. Janet Mattis and Debbie Visco are co-workers whose children were both students of Palmer’s. Visco’s daughter, who was a student at Park Avenue 25 years ago, is now eight months pregnant with her first child.
“We still have our magnets that they made in nursery school,” Visco said.
Mattis said her involvement with the co-op, more than two decades ago, is a pleasant memory.
“It’s sometimes hard for working parents,” she said. She and her husband would take turns missing work for their volunteer obligations in the classroom. But they always found time to help, and even enjoyed the experience.
“It doesn’t feel like a requirement,” she said. “It was fun to come in.”
The community atmosphere is contagious. Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, attended the ribbon-cutting in a professional capacity and left with registration information to pass along to his staff members.
“Having gone through this as a parent, to find inexpensive and high-quality nursery care is a tough proposition,” Steck told the group. “This school does an excellent job.”
Spaces are still available for the 2014-2015 school year to children who will be 3 or 4 years old by Dec. 1, 2014. Call registrar Bernadette Augusta at 878-4959 for more information.