Wilder Memorial Nursery School is Celebrating 95 years of cooperative education for Hingham’s children

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January 7, 2020 by Carol Britton Meyer & Wilder Publicity Co-Chair Brooke Brown​ (all photos courtesy of Wilder Nursery School and Hingham Historical Society).

Wilder Memorial Nursery School, the oldest cooperative preschool in the United States and the first preschool to educate three-year-olds, celebrated 95 years of educating generations of Hingham children Jan. 2 and 3 with a special birthday party in honor of the occasion.​

Students and teachers celebrated this milestone by baking pink and green (Wilder's colors) cupcakes, singing "Happy Birthday, Wilder," and learning about the rich history of this treasured school.​

Photo courtesy of Hingham Historical Society: A long view looking to northeast from the grassy mall that runs along Main Street through Glad Tidings Plain. On the far side of Main Street is the large two and one- half storey clapboard Wilder Hall. It has a mansard/hip roof with single window dormers, four brick chimneys, tall windows and masonry foundation. It is flanked by 18th and 19th century homes. Written on front:4/12/25 South Hingham.

The preschool has operated at Wilder Memorial Hall in Hingham since 1924, when it first occupied a single school room heated by a wood-burning fireplace. Over the years the school facilities have been modernized and enrollment has grown to more than 90 students, but Wilder remains true to its original ideals with a child-centric approach to learning and a cooperative model that emphasizes parent and overall family involvement.​

Photo courtesy of Hingham Historical Society: Print depicts an large elegant three-story hall with elements of classic motifs, a variety of dormers and tall windows of it's clapbord highly decorative facade. Stairs and iron railing lead up to it's panelled double-door front entrance. The style is French Academic of the Second Empire and the hall was considered "an ornament of the town." Built in 1879, the hall was originally for activities in South Hingham, music and balls. In 1883 South hinghamites formed a Temperance Society there. Written on back: Wilder Memorial.

Three-generation family​

Alice Horner is a member of a three-generation Wilder family. Her parents, George and Margie Felton, moved to Hingham in the 1950’s when she was born "and were so happy to be able to send me and my two younger sisters, Margie and Nancy, to Wilder," she recalls. "We loved it." ​

Three generations of Wilder students/pictured Alice Horner, Charlie Horner and Cole Horner.

Horner remained in Hingham to raise her own family and wanted her children - two sons, Coleman and Preston, and a daughter, Liesl -- to experience those things that are "unique and wonderful"  about Wilder. "My grandson, Cole and Maggie’s son Charlie, is now at Wilder and can’t wait to get to school each day. He is having fun learning," Horner said. "The teachers are all wonderful and provide a safe place for children to express themselves and to listen to the other children."​

There is a reason why Wilder has been helping and teaching kids for 95 years, Horner said with enthusiasm. "They are doing everything right."​

Special events​

Kristin O'Brien said serving as president of the Wilder Parent Board is "such a special experience," pointing to numerous events hosted by board members throughout the year "where Wilder families can have fun together. These include an Ice Cream Social, Camp Wilder, the Valentine's Day Sweetheart Dance, the Annual Skating Event, and everyone’s favorite -- the Wilder Fair. These activities provide so many opportunities to connect with classmates and their families and help to form friendships that last long beyond when a child officially walks through those big blue doors for the last time," O'Brien said. "But Wilder isn’t a place you leave behind when your kids move on to elementary school. Wilder alumni love coming back to events with their younger brothers and sisters and visiting their former teachers."​

The Busy Bunnies having fun beading on Halloween Day.

One of her favorite things about Wilder is the school’s commitment to traditions, which O'Brien said the Board helps to preserve by assisting with the popular Rodeo and Graduation.​

Wilder Graduation/pictured Kathleen Snow and Mia Krakowiak.

"There are some kids at the school whose parents and grandparents stood on the same stage for these very same events," O'Brien said. "There are many opportunities for parents to participate."​

Charlie Hutchison loves when his dad, Dean (a Wilder alumni) comes in as Parent of the Day.

For instance, twice a year each child is invited to bring a special person to school with them to spend the day with their class. "It's great to see your child interact with his or her classmates, to see the learning in action, and to let parents get in on some of the fun," O'Brien said. "And there is lots of fun to be had because Wilder never misses an opportunity to celebrate" every birthday and every holiday -- including the Halloween parade, Thanksgiving feast, visit from Santa at Christmastime, lighting the menorah at Hanukkah -- along with visits from such special visitors as the tooth fairy and community helpers.​

Wilder’s Thanksgiving Harvest Feast with the Huggy Bears and Playful Puppies.

"The level of parental involvement really sets the school apart by allowing them to do so many things, by making the school feel like a community, and by giving parents an opportunity to create cherished memories with their kids." Some of the most memorable traditions are those that are unique and special to Wilder.​

Looking back​

The idea for the Hingham preschool began in the early 1920s when a group of Hingham mothers heard a lecture about the benefits of educating very young children who had not reached school age. The group’s proposal for a community preschool was met with varying reactions from townspeople, including comments such as “radical,” “a way to get rid of the children,” and “a crazy idea to send babies to school.”​

Photo courtesy of Hingham Historical Society

Despite the skepticism, the eventual founders persisted and in due time won the support of the Martin Wilder Trust, which had been established for the purpose of education, art, and charity. The terms of Wilder’s bequest are still inscribed in the lobby of Wilder Memorial Hall, where the school that means so much to many has operated since its inception.​

Fond memories​

Hingham Town Historian Alexander Macmillan recalls being at Wilder in the 1940s when he was a first-grade Hingham Public Schools student. "There was no room for us at that time in the old South School (before a new school was built)," he said. "I lived across the street at that time so it was easy to attend. We were in the room upstairs with the stage, which we faced. The teacher sat behind us. We had the feeling she was watching us, so we behaved! Even when we didn't know the answer to a question, we would raise our hands, hoping that because they were raised she wouldn't call on us!"​

While Macmillan said that while the room wasn't particularly suited to being a classroom per se, the stage provided opportunities for singing and dancing and putting on "different productions. All in all that room served us well."​

Some of the kids had been to nursery school so knew some of the colors, Macmillan remembers, "so some of us had to try hard to catch up!"​

Today Macmillan is a trustee of the Wilder Charitable and Educational Fund, Inc.. which owns the building and makes charitable donations to various organizations in town, he explained.​

Back to the present​

Today the preschool continues to thrive under the leadership of Director Cissy McCullough, who took over the reins in 2017 after teaching for seven years at Wilder.​

The Lucky Duck class making Alphabet Soup.

Wilder's mantra is: "Wilder Memorial Nursery School . . . a nurturing tradition of children, family, and friends since 1924."​

"There's such a comfortable, warm, and nurturing environment," McCullough said. "Kids have their own classroom as a home base but are able to filter through the different classrooms and make friends with children in the other classes. They also learn how to treat their friends, teachers, and the environment with respect. Wilder's two rules are to have fun and to be a good friend."​

Lauren Mahoney’s Wilder school photo in 1987 and her son’s, Teddy Mahoney, in 2019.

Many parents who were once Wilder students enroll their children here in later years," McCullough noted. "Our goal is for the kids to gain a love for learning and that they love coming to school. The students enter Wilder skipping, smiling, and happy. I feel so blessed to share this magical time in their lives. They fill your bucket up with pure love."​

Assistant Director Jo-Ann Sullivan, whose three children attended Wilder, summed up many families' loyalty to Wilder: "We don't leave!"​

McCullough -- in partnership with her tenured staff and Parent Board -- creates an environment where childhood is celebrated and children love going to school. Students learn, grow, and play together while developing the skills and fundamentals for grade-school readiness through a unit-based curriculum that explores a different theme each month such as farms, space, and the rain forest (this month).​

Mrs. McCullough, Wilder's School Director, is leading the children in a 95th Birthday Celebratory Parade.

Often these units are reinforced with field trips, where students take their  learning on the road -- visiting Weir River Farm, Hornstra Farms, the local library, and other places.​

A low student-to-teacher ratio allows staff to tailor the curriculum to meet the individual needs of the students and to offer a program that blends structure and flexibility.​

"I'm so proud of the teachers and staff -- they are so talented and creative," McCullough said. "While the children do develop skill sets, we celebrate childhood here -- a place where they can play and explore. We meet them wherever they are so they can be successful in their learning environment."​

Baking something yummy and nutritious in the Playful Panda classroom with Mrs. Murtagh.

Teacher Jenn Gilman, whose three children attended Wilder, noted the nearly non-existent staff turnover. "We're like one big family," she said.

Tradition ​

Wilder takes pride in keeping traditions alive for its students through its many celebrations. In addition, children rotate for the opportunity to be the “special person of the day,” enjoying their time of helping to lead their class at school and taking the classroom mascot home for a sleepover.​

The annual Wilder Rodeo/pictured Matty Lawrence and Owen Devlin.

Every spring, the pre-k classes perform in the annual Wilder Rodeo, where they take to the stage in upper hall -- where Macmillan performed so many years ago -- to sing songs, lasso horses, and don their best cowpoke gear. ​

This same stage holds the end of the year graduation ceremony. during which  students are awarded their masters of small arts, ready to head off to the "big school."​

The year culminates in the time-tested Wilder Fair, which is run by parents and open to the public. Moonwalks, petting zoos, pony rides, and games provide fun for the entire community and an opportunity for alumni to return to their well-loved first school.​

Bubble fun at Camp Wilder.

Tammy Hutchison, a teacher in the Playful Puppies and the Busy Bunnies classes, said it's an honor to work at Wilder. "It’s a special little place where both parents and teachers come together to make the best experience for these little learners."​

Her husband, Dean Hutchison -- a Wilder alumnus -- "made it clear from the time we had a baby that our children would go through Wilder!" she recalls. "He remembers having such a wonderful time in preschool and wanted his children to have the same experience. So all three of our children have been through Wilder -- one is here now."​

Caroline Throne, Milly Pugh, Claire Dauphinais and Nadia Mamary are excited to celebrate Wilder’s 95th Birthday.

Hutchison said she made some of her best friends as a Wilder parent.  "And now as a teacher working alongside the amazing teachers at Wilder, I have made more best friends," she said.​

'Parent of the day'​

The cooperative model welcomes parents to join the learning and fun through the “Parent of the Day" program, when parents spend two days in their child’s classroom each school year.​

This unforgettable experience dates back to the inception of Wilder and allows parents to experience firsthand what happens in the classroom and  the bonds their children are forming with classmates and teachers. Parents can also apply to join the Parent Board, which meets monthly and supports the school through events, fundraising, and various other operational functions.​

Dawn Murray, the parent of two Wilder Nusery School graduates, will never forget when she and her family were doing what she calls "the preschool open house circuit in Hingham" and visited Wilder.​

"I was so stressed about finding the 'perfect' place for our son. When we arrived, the teachers were beyond welcoming. They immediately made us feel like family. One of the teachers gave me a hug because I told her how anxious I was about making the right or wrong choice," Murray recalls. "She told me, 'You are doing an amazing job!'"​

A hug for Santa after his visit to Wilder.

Murray noticed two other teachers arranging art projects in the back, singing a song, and having great fun together. "I also spoke with a couple of high school-age students who were reminiscing about how they were 'Chipmunks' together when they were at Wilder. At the time I wasn't quite sure what that meant, but I could instantly tell that this school was a very special place."​

Fast forward to 2019 now that her family has two Wilder Nursery School graduates and Murray says she "couldn't be more thankful for the experiences they both had there. Wilder is everything a parent could want for their child in a nursery school experience. The kids are nurtured, they are loved, and they are given an amazing educational foundation for grade school readiness.​

Bunnies in a boat! Caroline Garland, Connor Davalla and Liam Marchildon are taking a ride down the Amazon River this January while learning about the Rainforest.

"Every single one of the teachers who work there are incredible people who know just how to cater to each individual student and make each one feel special. I am forever grateful that our children will always be a part of the Wilder Family. They both entered kindergarten ready -- confident and with so many familiar Ducks, Bunnies, Pandas, and Giraffes in their classes! It all makes sense to me now. Happy 95th Birthday, Wilder Memorial Nursery School - thank you for everything!"​

Past director shares memories​

Margo Siegfried -- whose Wilder experience spanned 37 years, first as a parent, then in two teaching positions including music teacher drawing upon her guitar-playing and singing experience, and finally as director of Wilder for 29 years starting in 1988 -- said she loved every minute of her time at Wilder. "I used to say I had the best job in the whole world!"​

Bailey O’Brien and Kinley Frey are cozily dressed and ready for pajama day.

Her family first learned about Wilder when they moved to Hingham in the early 1980s. "Parents we met told us Wilder had the nicest teachers and staff and that they were so kind and nice with the kids," Siegfried recalled. "We enrolled our daughter right away!"​

Speaking of the "wonderful years" she spent there , Siegfried said, "I met some really nice people, had a great experience, and fell in love with hundreds and hundreds of kids -- I still see some of who I call 'my kids' and their families around town [and other places] today. That's a gift."​

Working with children requires patience and a willingness to allow them to learn in their own time and in their own way, according to Siegfried. "It's about their purity, joy, and innocence and the trust they show you every day."​

Siegfried said she likes to think that as director she continued the tradition of "the wonderful group of women who worked at Wilder [when her daughter first enrolled]. When hiring new teachers I always looked for women who were happy, loved children, and were really committed -- not just looking for a job."​

When asked occasionally how she was able to endure all the noise, Siegfried would respond good-naturedly, "What noise?!"  That's because "children's voices and laughter are different from noise because all you hear and see is the joy, curiosity, and sense of wonder they express."​

During Siegfried's years as director, the number of students grew from about 50 or 60 to more than 100 children, and two additional afternoon classes were added on top of the morning classes already offered.​

She noted that she changed the name of the current "parent of the day" program from "mother of the day" because so many dads wanted to be involved in the Wilder experience. "They brought another perspective, were enthusiastic, and loved being with their kids, which made Wilder even better."​

While more of an emphasis was placed on academics in her later years at Wilder, Siegfried said, "We never lost sight of the fact that kids need to play, sing, socialize with one another, and create. In the midst of all the activities and parties, they were learning all the time, everyday." That tradition continues.​

This is Denise Neville's 22nd year working at Wilder. "I love the people and the kids. The environment is amazing," she said. "It doesn't get old -- there's something new every day."​

Open house coming up​

As Wilder celebrates 95 years with generations and generations of families and educators, they look forward to welcoming new students through the big blue doors. The school is currently enrolling children ages 2.9 to 5-years-old for the 2020-2021 school year.​

Prospective families are encouraged to bring their little ones to the open house on January 12 from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. to meet staff and parents and to experience firsthand what makes Wilder so special.​

For more information about the school visit wilderschool.org.​

Wilder Kids Share Their Thoughts

Four students shared what they like best about their experience at Wilder with the Hingham Anchor.

* Nadia Mamary, 4 -- "I like being here every day. I make friends here. My dad was parent of the day in December in my Lovable Lions class."​

* Bailey O'Brien, 4 -- "I love the toys, the decorations, all the classes, and my friends."​

* Connor Davalla, 4 -- "I like playing in the rubber boat, and the teachers are nice."​

* Claire Dauphinais, 5 -- "I love playing with my friend Milly. I like playing with the dollhouse with Nadia and Milly."​

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