campus news and events

After 37 Years, Windy Hill School Founder Janet Bliss Retires

Associate Professor of Social Science and Education Janet Bliss, founder of Colby-Sawyer's early childhood laboratory school, Windy Hill, will retire at the end of June after a 37-year career at the college.

Professor Bliss's true tenure on campus stretches back to 1971 when she earned her associate's degree from Colby Junior College during an era when streaking was popular on campus and professors used to smoke cigarettes in class, and during the war in Vietnam, students protested on the quad.

After completing her education with a master's degree in education from Wheelock College in Boston, Professor Bliss and a friend decided to start their own school in the basement of a church in New London. Fortuitously, the head of the college's new Child Studies Program enrolled his young daughter in the school. Over the course of that year, he managed to convince the college administration that the program needed a lab school.

With that, Windy Hill School became part of the college in 1976. But although the administration was willing to give Bliss and the school a chance, they were skeptical. She recalls that the college president decided to err “on the safe side” by paying her half of the tuition raised, instead of a normal salary. To his surprise, the school was an instant success. “By the end of the year they didn't want that arrangement anymore,” Bliss says with a laugh. “Gosh, I wish I still had that deal today!”

Windy Hill opened on campus as one large room in the basement of Abbey Hall, a space the children and teachers shared with resident students. If students had planned a party on a weekend, the school had to put all of its supplies away. Over the years, the school expanded into another wing, then the entire floor, and finally, took over the basement of nearby Burpee Hall as well. In October 2010, Colby-Sawyer dedicated a brand new light-filled building for Windy Hill, on a grassy hill with views of Mount Kearsarge.

“Children matter,” Professor Bliss said at the dedication of the new school. “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.”

Over the years, Windy Hill School has evolved not just architecturally, but technologically. When Professor Bliss began teaching, the school had no computers, and she had never even used one until she arrived in her office one day to find a Macintosh sitting on her desk. Dismissive at first, “I thought in my advanced age, in my 40s, it would be a huge challenge,” she quickly embraced it. Since then, computers have changed many aspects of her work at Windy Hill, including inspiring a recent project studying how children interact with technology, with a particular focus on the school's behaviorist approach to child development.

Although difficult to move on from the little school that started out in a church basement, she is proud of what she's leaving behind. “What's inescapable is that the [new] building speaks to the importance of young children and the people who work with them,” she says. “When I leave, I'll think 'Yes. It's on the most beautiful site on campus. How fitting.'”

Assistant Director and kindergarten teacher Rachel Ensign has been named interim director. Ensign earned a B.S. in Child Development and a minor in Psychology from Colby-Sawyer College in 2006 and an M.S. in Language & Literacy Development from Wheelock College. In addition to her experience at Windy Hill, she has served as Program Director for the Warner Cooperative Preschool.

– by Ruth Graham; excerpted from the story "True Tenure" in the Fall 2012 issue of Colby-Sawyer magazine