KEENE — The crackle of little feet echoed through the new home of Little Peaks Preschool and Early Childhood Center for the first time last Tuesday, the first notes of music that will soon fill the building for 50 weeks of each year.
The new center was all bone on Tuesday — the exterior walls were up, and the interior rooms and roof were bounded by two-by-fours — but for future, present, and past Little Peaks students, the building was already a playground. Several children ran through the building as a group of about 30 toured the new center during an open house led by Little Peaks executive director Reid Jewett Smith.
As she walked through the rooms of Little Peaks with her youngest daughter strapped to her back, Jewett Smith verbally painted the picture of what the finished center will look like. The “heart” of the building will be her kitchen, she said, thanks to the vision of Little Peaks co-founder and kindergarten director Katherine Brown. While the commercial kitchen will be separated from the “warm”– a friendly dining area that will have low tables for children, Little Peaks students will have access to a dishwashing station and they can help with basic kitchen prep work like mixing pasta. Jewett Smith hopes activities like these could encourage students from an early age to cook and clean up after themselves.
In the center left wing, there will be two baby-toddler rooms. Each room can accommodate up to four babies up to 18 months and four toddlers up to 3 years old, for a total of eight babies and eight toddlers. There will also be a potty training area in this center wing.
The center’s right wing will have room for up to 16 preschoolers ages 3-5. A second room in the right wing is what Jewett Smith called the “multipurpose and multisensory room” reserved for messy art projects, wall climbing and indoor tricycling in the winter. But the room also gives Little Peaks an opportunity to grow when needed; Jewett Smith said the room could serve as a “overflow” area for children of all ages.
For Jewett Smith, the main focus of the new Little Peaks property is its outdoor space. She said the children will spend the majority of their days outdoors as part of the center’s nature-based program. There will be two playgrounds behind the center – one for toddlers and another for preschoolers – as well as a pollinator garden, a vegetable garden for the students to tend to, and trails back to the Dart Creek, which runs along the rear of the center property.
Jewett Smith said she wanted to build a lean-to next to the creek as an outdoor classroom space, and she hopes one day students will explore the creek both when it’s frozen and when it’s babbling. That hope turned into a promising reality on Tuesday as a few children eagerly returned to the creek and started jumping in the rocks.
“The more time I spend here, the clearer it becomes to me that we have so many exciting opportunities for outdoor classrooms and outdoor education there,” Jewett Smith told the tour group on Tuesday.
Little Peaks purchased the land, located opposite Keene Town Hall, from the Essex County Housing Assistance Program, which still owns the adjoining land. HAPEC is considering the idea of developing up to six housing units on this land, and HAPEC board member Marcy Neville told a meeting of Keene Town Council earlier this month that the program planned to hold open meetings and possibly do surveys to see what the community wants. If a new housing project sees the light of day there, the neighboring Little Peaks and HAPEC properties would meet two needs identified in the city’s 2021 strategic plan: more child care services and more affordable housing for the community.
When Little Peaks – which was founded about 30 years ago – opens its doors, it will grow from its current operation of three hours a day, fall through spring, serving eight children, to a full-time licensed daycare that operates 50 weeks a year. Jewett Smith hopes the new center will open next summer.
A small town after all
Little Peaks teachers Peg Wilson and Anita Sayers strolled the grounds of the new center on Tuesday with smiles on their faces. Sayers has been involved with Little Peaks since the beginning, and she’s not the only one who keeps coming back. She said the general contractor for the new center, who volunteered her time on the project for a year and a half, had a daughter in Little Peaks when it opened. Several other people in the community offered pro bono services to help build the center – the project lawyers, accountants, architect, landscaper and Little Peaks board of directors – often because they had children who frequented Little Peaks.
Now Sayers said she’s starting to see children passing through Little Peaks whose parents attended the school.
“It’s a small town after all” Wilson sang while laughing.
Sara Posdzich said her daughter had just graduated from Little Peaks and her son would start at the new center next year. Posdzich approached the teachers and formed a “tight” group with other Little Peaks parents, and she believes the new center will make the community “it’s better this way.”
“It’s good that the community really wants to invest in these little lives that will continue the community later”, she says.
The rapid progress of the new center is largely thanks to community donors. Two locals provided seed funding of $750,000 – which has now grown to $1.4 million – to launch the centre’s capital project, and part-time Keene Valley resident Annette Merle-Smith, provided $500,000 to start an endowment fund to ensure families of all incomes can send their children to the center. Jewett Smith hopes Little Peaks can build the endowment fund up to $3 million, which would be used to subsidize tuition for low-income families to give children of all socio-economic positions access to same academic foundations.
Thanks to the donations, Jewett Smith said the building will be solar-powered and have electric vehicle charging stations, a healthy food program that sources ingredients from local farms, and a building filled with all-natural, chemical-free, plastic design elements. -free and safe for children.
The times are changing
When asked how they got involved with Little Peaks, Wilson and Sayers both pointed to Katherine Brown, the center’s preschool director. Brown was one of the founders of Little Peaks about 30 years ago, and Jewett Smith called Brown the “North Star” of Little Peaks’ environmentally responsible programming in the new center.
Brown said when she moved to Keene with her 3-year-old in the early 1990s, she couldn’t find a preschool. She decided to get together with a group of parents who also needed childcare, and Little Peaks was born.
Brown said the center started with half-day operations two days a week, and it was working for people at the time. But over time, she said, more and more families needed stronger child care. She said the new Little Peaks center is an exciting project “growth” of this change.
Sayers also noted this change, saying that around the time Little Peaks started, there were more parents who had jobs they could leave for a few years to care for their children. These days, she says, there are more couples who both have jobs — sometimes multiple jobs — and they need a center that can watch their children through an entire working day.
Angela Smith, whose son Beckham graduated from Little Peaks last year, said she had to quit her job this summer to care for Beckham since Little Peaks, in its current capacity, is not operating for the months of summer. She also noted that the past two years have been particularly difficult as she has had to juggle work and caring for Beckham throughout the coronavirus pandemic. She thinks the new Little Peaks center will help solve these difficulties for other parents.
“It is necessary for the community, but also for the mental health of the parents”, she says. “Little Peaks is an amazing program, but half a day is a struggle – working and doing half a day and socializing them (kids).”
Brown said her 3-year-old is now 32, but after years of teaching K-6 in public schools, she returned to Little Peaks as a teacher five years ago. She is excited about the center “continuity of care” model, which will allow children to stay with a teacher for a few years at a time as they move through Little Peaks. Brown said she is passionate about early childhood education and that children are what make the experience meaningful to her.
“What keeps me coming back are families and children,” she says. “They make it fun. If you feel grumpy in the morning, you go to school and they cheer you up.