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Currents: a dream made real

Colby-Sawyer Dedicates a Dream Made Real: The Windy Hill School

One thing was perfectly clear on October 14 at the dedication ceremony for the new Windy Hill School: No one present had ever seen a space its equal in beauty or function dedicated to the education of young children.

Kayleigh Flynn '11, president of the child development club, summed up many reactions when she said, “I think it's a hugely impressive building. Every time I come in for my practicum I'm impressed again. I just feel so lucky to have this facility here, to have the kids and this building to work with.”

Less than a year after a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the Windy Hill School, the Colby-Sawyer community gathered again to celebrate the building's completion. The new school, born of an anonymous $1 million challenge gift and nurtured by those who recognize the importance of early childhood education, is on a grassy hillside overlooking the tennis courts and fields hemmed by trees and guarded by Mount Kearsarge. The faculty, trustees, staff, college students and friends who took their seats on bright red and blue sofas in Windy Hill's common room could watch some of the school's 65 young students at play through the wall of windows looking toward the mountain. With the afternoon sun igniting the fall foliage into a glowing ring around the field, children streamed down the hill and launched balls into the air, unconscious of their roles as the perfect backdrop for a milestone celebration in college history.

Anne Winton Black '73,'75, chair of the Board of Trustees, welcomed the standing room-only crowd that filled the room and every area surrounding it, even down the hallway back to the entrance where they couldn't hope to hear the speeches. Latecomers weren't able to squeeze into the building to attend the event, but no one was surprised by the outpouring of support for the building's dedication and mission – after all, it's what had created it in the first place.

“It is through our collective philanthropy and the shared vision for providing an exceptional laboratory school at Colby-Sawyer College that our new Windy Hill School stands before us,” Trustee Black said. “And, what a beautiful and functional vision it turned out to be! I doubt there is a person here today who is not awed by how stunning this space is and how perfect it is for the children who will launch their academic journey at Windy Hill…Today's dedication is a vivid reminder that philanthropy has the power to transform.”

Janet Bliss '71, director of Windy Hill and associate professor of Social Sciences and Education, has been present for every step of the school's transformation since Professor Marc Clement convinced the administration in 1976 that an on-site early childhood center would help promote and enrich the new Child Studies Program. Recalling the school's first year as a one-room experiment in the basement of Abbey Hall equipped with homemade bookcases and makeshift tables supported by cement blocks, she held up the green spiral notebook that tracked the teachers' hours and compensation ($2.30 an hour) and parents' payments (tuition was $6 per day).

“Humble beginnings…and yet despite our cobbled appearance people began to quickly take note that there was something exceptional about Windy Hill School…And herein lie the essence and success of Windy Hill School,” said Professor Bliss. “Children matter. Provide children with interesting and provocative materials and they will construct understandings and become confident in their own abilities to reason and think autonomously. Trust that children are indeed competent and when given appropriate guidance and challenges will indeed become the competent industrious beings we want.”

Families matter, too, continued Professor Bliss, as do teachers, research and the environment both inside and outside the classroom.

“We have received many commendations for our programmatic design and imaginative curriculum. But it is precisely the celebration of environment that brings us all here today...One might reasonably ask, if Windy Hill was so successful in its old environment, why go to such expense and effort to create a new environment? Certainly many people subscribe to the notion that children can prosper in spaces far less impressive than what stands here today. And I would not argue with that.

“What I do contend, however, is that Windy Hill can and is already transforming its best practices into even better practices in this environment. Everything about this new facility speaks to the importance of children and families and the people who work with them. In the few short weeks that Windy Hill has inhabited its new home, the environment is already having a tremendous impact. Light, space, dedicated curriculum areas, expansive views, observation rooms, and even bathrooms specific to children and adult needs are changing the way we are able to imagine, plan and execute.”

While the list of contributors to the new environment was long and included, among others, architect Ingrid Moulton Nichols of Banwell Associates, NorthBranch Construction, Vice President of Administration Doug Atkins, members of the planning committee, and many faculty and staff colleagues who supported the endeavor, Professor Bliss especially thanked the anonymous donor family who made the one million dollar challenge gift that started the project.

“Why did this family choose Windy Hill School for its philanthropy?” asked Professor Bliss. “Well, they definitely love Colby-Sawyer College…and they…support the college in a number of significant ways. But this family that so values the benefits of a college education also recognizes and appreciates the importance of early education. In particular, they were impressed with the Child Development Program and the role Windy Hill plays in supporting students' understandings of young children.

“Their daughter, a favorite person of mine and a generally reserved young woman, felt especially passionate about Windy Hill deserving a new facility and promised her father that, if necessary, she would mobilize her friends to picket a Trustees meeting! Although this was never necessary it remains one of my favorite stories about how strongly individuals appreciate Windy Hill. In the case of the donor family, they already believed that young children and the people who work with them deserve beautiful spaces. They felt quite strongly that an outstanding program deserved an outstanding facility.”

As another sign of Windy Hill's position as a beloved institution, President Galligan informed the college community of a $15,000 gift in memory of an anonymous donor's father.

“This gift is intended to inspire children to love farming and will be used to design and construct a new outside playground with a farm theme,” said President Galligan. “A well-run farm today can become a symbol of sustainable living and one of our four strategic themes at Colby-Sawyer College is Living Sustainably. Consequently we are doubly proud today not only to be dedicating a brand new Windy Hill School but also proud because it is our very first green building on campus. The building's green construction was made possible by an additional challenge gift from the anonymous million dollar donors. Thank you again for showing us the way to a better, more sustainable, future.”

President Galligan, who has referred to buildings as “houses of dreams,” said he also sees them as “places of permanence.” “By permanence I don't mean that buildings physically last forever. What I mean is that buildings last forever in the memories of those who live, learn and play in them. They shape our memories and they shape our footprint on the future...I'm sure that in some distant time more than a few of today's Windy Hill students, by then grown to adulthood, will see or hear something that reminds them of their favorite room here, or their Windy Hill friends, or a teacher from Windy Hill. Perhaps one day they'll catch the smell of something wonderful baking, and, like Marcel Proust and his madeleines in Remembrance of Things Past, they'll be transported back to this building and the happy times they experienced where they began their lifelong education. In that way the Windy Hill School will exist always in a special place in their memories as a place of permanence.”

After the ceremony, Windy Hill teachers led tours through the new facility on which visitors were delighted to discover the lofts, tunnels, library, exterior building facades that foster the sense of being in a community, block and observation rooms, water tables and even a mud-room entrance where little explorers can be hosed down if necessary before reentering the building.

Dave Eldred of Fairfax, Va., stood by while daughter Samantha, almost three, worked on a puzzle at a table just her size. “Samantha's in a daycare at home but it is nothing like this,” he said. “Look at the innovation, look at these lofts and the ship downstairs and the fact that there are play areas dedicated to blocks and a library … I've never seen anything like this place.”

Trustee Karen Eldred '86 said of the new school, “It's spectacular. I wish it had been here when I was a student. It's a huge opportunity. That's what I see here, a huge opportunity for students who want to go into early childhood. And for prospective students who walk in here and see this … I've got to say, why would they see this and then go anywhere else?”

Stephen Ensign, trustee emeritus, his daughter-in-law, Jennifer James Ensign '99, a toddler teacher at Windy Hill for eight years and her own son who attends the school represent three generations of involvement with Windy Hill and multiple layers of appreciation for the new building.

“Anyone who went into the former facilities cannot help but understand how much this means to everybody and the kids. Just looking around at this new space they get to learn in, it's really important. It's special,” said Mr. Ensign. “We're also very fortunate to have it in our community. The college is a big part of what makes our area what it is, and all the things that it brings to us, and how the families are impacted.”

Jennifer Ensign's first experience with Windy Hill was in the old basement location as a college student. She taught at other preschools and in the public school system before returning to the place where, she says, the professors “provided so much of an understanding that it really gave you a love of childhood and an understanding of how important it is to have a space like this. It was really incredible to see it unfold and now, to be here, it's just a great space. It's wonderful. I've never seen anything like it, absolutely not. Just in my mind.”

Outside, light refreshments of brightly decorated cupcakes and fruit were available and the ooohs and ahhhs continued.

Echoing Professor Bliss's sentiment that environment affects learning, Child Development Club President Kayleigh Flynn said, “The children definitely seem more relaxed in the new building, probably because it's just more open. For whatever reason, I don' t know if it's the children or the building itself , but they're all doing their own thing and not worrying about what the other kids are doing. There are more windows, they're looking outside – that's a big difference. They seem to love it. They just have a great time.”

-Kate Dunlop Seamans