La Jolla United Methodist Church Nursery School celebrates 50 years of change and growth
As the educational needs of La Jolla’s littlest learners changed over the past five decades, La Jolla United Methodist Church Nursery School changed with them. That, along with the help of supportive and involved parents, is how the school has managed to thrive, its leaders say.
The school, at 6063 La Jolla Blvd., celebrated its 50th anniversary May 7 with a gala at the Scripps Seaside Forum that brought more than 300 people together and raised more than $250,000.
Funds raised at the celebration, co-chaired by parents Kelly Bleakley and Erica Alexander, will help improve the school’s facilities and support student scholarships and enrichment programs for teachers and students.
The nursery school first opened in 1972 via a “chain-link fence around the play area,” according to Executive Director Bridget Musante. It had three staff members, 15 students and a $435 budget.
Today, the school has 27 staff members, more than 150 children ages 2-5 and a waiting list.
“Over the past five decades, thousands of children from La Jolla and surrounding areas have passed through its gates,” the school said in a statement. “Additionally, the grounds have been beautified, playgrounds expanded, the school’s cottage program for pre-kindergartners launched and an outdoor classroom introduced.”
Musante said the expansion projects stemmed from demand. “We needed to create more spaces to accommodate more kids,” she said. “It started with the refurbishment of what we call ‘the big room’ and now we have seven different classrooms, including the outdoor classroom. We also took over a little cottage on the other side of campus around 16 years ago. It’s like a little schoolhouse.”
In addition to the physical expansion, the types of students who are accepted also expanded.
The school started for members of the church but now is a non-denominational option for anyone.
“All faiths are welcome,” Musante said. “We don’t celebrate religious holidays, but we invite families to bring their holiday traditions to share with the kids. We have had dreidel lessons and Christmas trees to decorate. We leave it open-ended for the families to share. We want the kids to be exposed to different values.”
The school’s early offerings included coloring books and pre-outlined art projects, but Musante said the school now is inspired by the Reggio Emilia philosophy, which started in Italy and focuses on having the teachers collaborate with the children to create a curriculum.
“You’ll never see pre-cut art in our school,” Musante said. “Our program is play-based and child-centered, so the curriculum is built around what the children are interested in. We want to create a love of learning so they want to go to school.”
As an example, she said, one student went to school talking about a treehouse he built with his father over the summer, and the other students got excited about it. “The teachers built an entire curriculum around that, including math, science and literacy concepts. It’s magical to take the kids’ ideas and empower them to execute their plans and ideas.”
When the school first opened, families only had the option to send their children for two or three days a week. That soon evolved to welcoming older groups five days a week.
In 2014, the school started offering full-time care under Musante’s watch (she became executive director in 2013). “We were hearing from working parents that needed full-time care for their kids,” she said. “Now we don’t have enough full-time spots.”
“The curriculum is built around what the children are interested in. We want to create a love of learning so they want to go to school.”
— Bridget Musante, executive director
Musante will be retiring at the end of the year. Erin Wyer, a teacher and administrator at the school, will take the helm.
Wyer said she plans to continue the work Musante has done and continue with school traditions.
“We bridge home and school; that is our top priority,” Wyer said. “One of the biggest traditions at our school is, at the beginning of the year, we have home visits. The teachers take that time with the kids to show us their space, tell us what their interests are and learn to trust us to we can understand what is important to them and they feel connected to the teachers when they start school.”
She laughed as she recalled the home visit when her daughter was preparing to go to La Jolla United Methodist Church Nursery School. “It was so exciting.”
Wyer said the school has “an awesome thing going” but still has opportunities for growth.
“We always want to work with the community,” she said. “It started as a true nursery school with kids coming a few days a week. Now, with many kids having two working parents, the needs are greater than ever, so we want to make sure we are always evolving with the needs of the community.”
She said she is “completely honored” to be named the next executive director because “the school itself has such a history in the community, and to be a part of all these families and a part of the experiences these kids have … is very special.”
Learn more at ljumcns.com. ◆
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