Barstow board approves forest preschool

By Brett Yates

A plan to provide full-time, nature-based education to three-, four- and five-year-olds in Chittenden has secured a home at Barstow Memorial School.

The Barstow Unified Union School Board unanimously approved the concept in a special meeting on April 24. Starting in the fall, the recently christened Fox Hollow Forest School will occupy a space currently used as an “intervention room,” which will move elsewhere in the building after the school year.

The agreement caps a saga that began in January when local moms Clair Purcell and Kristin Lucas approached the Chittenden Select Board with a proposal to open a preschool on the upper floor of the North Chittenden Grange Hall, a municipally owned historic structure used for community events and weddings. In subsequent meetings, townspeople spoke up to affirm the need for more childcare in Rutland County, but some objected — strenuously at times — to the prospect of losing access to half of the Grange five days a week.

The resistance led Purcell and Lucas to look for a different landlord. Negotiations with Barstow began in the spring.

Barstow already offers 10 hours a week of free pre-K to families served by the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union (RNESU). The public preschool will continue to operate alongside the new, separate, private program, most of whose instruction will take place outdoors. When summer vacation starts for Barstow students, the Fox Hollow Forest School will remain open, except for a two-week break.

At Monday’s meeting, School Board Member Susannah Loffredo expressed some trepidation about the arrangement.

“I have concerns how operating two concurrent programs with different curricula and different — for lack of a better word — standards fits in with our equity policies,” she said. “It creates two different camps within our building.”

“I don’t know that our current three- and four-year-olds would really notice that they are there,” Superintendent Kristin Hubert replied. “These folks would just be using the building when they use the building, but really the grounds are the majority of what they’re using.”

The desire to expand upon Barstow’s existing pre-K had motivated Purcell and Lucas last year to propose a “wraparound daycare” at the school. When that plan fell through, they developed the Forest School program for the Grange. The idea that Barstow could house side-by-side preschools — one part-time, one full-time — hadn’t occurred to them or to Barstow officials at the time, they told the Mountain Times.

“What we hope is that this will make pre-K in general much more accessible to Chittenden and Mendon and RNESU people as a whole,” Lucas said at the meeting. “Right now, a lot of people can’t access even the Barstow preschool because of its hours.”

Act 166 vouchers and private tuition payments will fund Fox Hollow’s operations. It will also make use of a $25,000 grant from the advocacy nonprofit Let’s Grow Kids to buy furniture and, possibly, to construct an “outdoor classroom” with a “nature play space” on Barstow’s grounds. At times, the students will use the school’s existing playground as well, but they will not, for instance, use its lunchroom or visit its nurse’s office.

The lease agreement, not yet finalized, will likely offer a one-year term with the possibility of a three-year renewal. Fox Hollow will not pay rent, but it will cover the cost of bathroom supplies with a $500 annual payment.

With 10 of its 20 slots reserved for RNESU families, Fox Hollow plans to open enrollment in June, soliciting applications in Chittenden and Mendon first. It expects to hire teachers and a program director in May. These employees will eventually own the school, which will operate as a worker cooperative.

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