The St. Paul’s Nursery & Day School was founded in 1948 with the belief that a child’s natural curiosity and love of play provide an ideal framework for learning. That philosophy has never changed.
Hours of Operation
St. Paul’s Nursery & Day School meets Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to noon, September through late May.
Our program serves three year old to five year old children, encompassing a wide variety of activities and learning opportunities designed to meet the needs of each individual child. Our curriculum fosters all aspects of a child’s emotional, physical, social and intellectual development. It features an integrated, hands-on approach to learning. St. Paul’s strives for a balance between the development of language skills, social skills and perceptual/motor skills with art, music, movement, dramatic play, science, cooking, field trips and experimentation.
In the Spring of 1948, three women from St. Paul’s had an idea; why not start a playgroup for their children? Sounds innocent enough, but what about the noise, the parishioners groaned. The toys! Not to mention the disruption of that nice new basement the ladies of the parish had fixed up and were planning to put to a more fitting use.
Tom Fraser, then St. Paul’s minister, stared down his opponents and said, “This is more important. Anybody who doesn’t like it, tough!” He asked the young wife of a Commerce Department cartographer, Thurman Brisben, to help. She was delighted as her daughter needed playmates.
St. Paul’s Nursery & Day School was born. The first year there were five students. With little money and heated opposition, the women spread the word among their friends that from 9 a.m. to noon, every day, their children were welcome (for a fee of $25 per month) to play in the church basement.
“We weren’t wanted, but we stuck it out,” recalled Brisben, who became the school’s first headmistress. “The ladies were incensed. I can understand why.” But during the War, women had joined the work force in droves and the demand for the daycare had grown. Several nursery schools sprung up in Old Town in response to that need. “It was touch and go in the beginning,” Brisben said.
Lucy Hunnicutt showed up one day to teach the 3’s and was still there after 50 years. The first year, she drove her own car as the school bus and picked up five children for the grand sum of $3 a month each.
In 1951, the enrollment grew to a dozen students and Lib Kerr was hired. “My husband didn’t want me to do it. He said I could stay one year and I stayed 13.”
Kerr split the children into three groups; the 3’s, the 4’s, and 5’s. The school drew from the neighborhood and the parish, and its reputation for Christian education in a loving environment grew. So did the waiting list.
“It was way ahead of its time,” said former minister John von Hemert.
Parents and spouses chipped in, making bookcases and donating supplies. Mil Councilor, an Old Town resident who had run a preschool of her own on South Lee Street, donated her old equipment, including some slides and a swing set with a platform. Salaries were low and the budget was tight. “I remember my first paycheck was $15,” Brisben said. And according to Hunnicutt, “if we got a $5 raise, it was a big thing.” Hunnicutt recalled that the 3’s budget was $25 a year.
Brisben and others convinced the church that the school needed a real building (after all, they had expanded to two kindergarten classes!), so plans were drawn up to renovate Wilmer Hall. During the renovation, the school moved to the Prince Street School location for one year.
St. Paul’s also became one of the only nursery schools to offer transportation.
In the 1970’s, headmistress, Susan de Gavre, took over from the retired Brisben and continued her predecessor’s work while modernizing the school, which in 1972, became an independent corporation, although it still has a close working relationship with the church. That same year a scholarship program was instituted. They were also one of the first nursery schools to use independent testers, that can discover individual needs.
In 1982, Martha Scott Schafer, who holds a masters degree in school administration, became headmistress. She is credited with formalizing Brisben’s and de Gavre’s earlier plans for the school, making the curriculum a three year total experience, and continuing the role of resource teachers.
Although Brisben’s early idea was a playgroup, Schafer credits the St. Paul’s pioneers with having more on their mind than just toys. “They took early education very seriously,” said Schafer.
Indeed, Brisben’s philosophy, that the child comes first, is still the watchword at St. Paul’s. It is one that Schafer and her staff continue to follow with fervor.
Unlike other schools, there is a stable corps of experienced teachers. In fact, combining their years of experience, the total comes to over 140 years! There is something else unique about St. Paul’s. “It operates as a school, and also as a family,” Schafer said. “The friendships you make stay with you.”
Asked to define the unique quality of St. Paul’s, John von Hemert put it simply. “It is,” he said, “a place where a child gets a good start.”
From Thurman Brisben to Martha Scott Schafer, from a rusty Packard to an eye-catching yellow bus, from borrowed equipment to a colorful playground, from a student enrollment of 5 children to 55, St. Paul’s has spanned almost seven decades and continues its task of nurturing, teaching and guiding some very small and special people.