Owning a preschool a labor of love

Unending supplies of energy, patience, and caring needed on this job site

BBJ photo/MARK MALIJAN
Netta Darling engages in some friendly give-and-take with her most precious clients — the preschoolers entrusted to her care at her Little Darlings school.

Dan Hiestand
   A valid question: What are the ingredients that make up love?
   The answer is not as complicated as you may think, if you subscribe to the beliefs of the children at A Little Darling school in Bellingham.
   “You put sparkles on it and shake it and write, ‘I love you on it.’ And it’s red,” wrote one youngster. Another little boy said that all that is required is to “make a heart and you put sparkles on it.”
   The thought-provoking question — as well as the hand-written responses — were created by the young minds at Netta Darling’s school as part of a “Question of the Day.” The daily inquiry and replies will soon change, but at this school, Darling hopes they never stop coming.
   “We’re wanting to create a thirst for learning with these young kids,” said Darling, who started the school three years ago. Darling, like many of her preschool-owner counterparts, said she didn’t get into the field to get rich. Rather, she wants to make a difference, both in the lives of the kids at her school and the parents who leave them in her care.
   Running a preschool isn’t easy, though, and characteristics such as patience, energy and a nurturing spirit are all essential when it comes to doing things the right way.

A lot of energy
   For Ryan Wapnowski, a 23-year-old teacher at A Little Darling, his work is gratifying.
   “This school is incredible,” said Wapnowski, who has worked there for five months. “Getting here in the morning, and having these kids greet me with huge hugs and saying they love me … It’s great.”
   Wapnowski, an art major at Western Washington University, said he eventually wants to be a high school art teacher, and his part-time job at the school fits in with his plans. The job has provided him with valuable lessons as a teacher, he said.
   “The days are so intense. I feel good, but it’s a bittersweet (thing),” he said. “I get done with a day of teaching, and I feel incredible because of all the energy these kids have given me, but then I feel just drained because they are always asking so many things.”
   If Darling is drained on this day, she is not showing it. In fact, the 37-year-old owner is busy preparing lunch for 24 of the 38 kids who attend her school every day. Of that total, 14 attend the pre-K school, also on the property. Today, she is preparing organic bean and cheese burritos in one of the school’s two kitchens. From this kitchen, all manner of sights, sounds and smells fill the scene.
   Close by, in the “Moon Room” — a space adjacent to the kitchen dedicated to science, literature, dramatic play and focused help with a teacher — kids relax on a cushy, green couch surrounded by plants, a rainbow carpet, miniaturized work stations, caged guinea pigs, and fish as an acoustic-guitar CD provides a mellow soundtrack.
   On the other side of the kitchen is the “Sun Room,” a more open space filled with blocks and soft mats that serves as a place where kids focus more on art, sensory and motor skills. The room also serves as a daily gathering spot.
   Outside, past the brightly colored interior walls draped with student pictures and art, is the playground, where a little girl with angel wings plays with a make-believe friend while another group of kids tug on a teacher’s jacket. Across the playground is a separate building which houses the pre-K students, the oldest kids at school who are preparing for a more regimented classroom experience.
   In the middle of it all is Darling, like a proud parent with the energy of a small child.
   “Play is the essence of learning,” said Darling. “Pretend happens all day long.”

A school is born
   The transition to being a preschool owner was a natural one for Darling, who doesn’t have a child of her own but would like to one day. While studying early childhood education at Whatcom Community College, she worked at A Loving Space, a school in Bellingham owned by Abby Franklin.
   “When I was there, it was like, ‘Wow, I really like this age group — a lot!’ A lot more than the kindergarten age. Something shifts at age 5; I really felt like I had a connection with that age,” she said.
   She worked at A Loving Space for five years, where she filled a variety of roles, including teacher, assistant director, director, and program coordinator.
   “I went as far as I could go,” she said.
   In the spring of 2003, she decided to take a break for the summer and consider her options. At that same time, Bellingham was in the middle of a real-estate boom, and the crayon writing seemed to appear on the wall, she said.
   “My husband and I were already getting ready to buy property, and I remember looking at him and saying, ‘I really miss the kids. I really want to be teaching again. But there is not anybody that I want to teach for, except for Abby,” she said.
   And so the couple decided to buy the school property in November of that year, although they didn’t close on it until March 2004.
   “That tells you something of what we had to go through with the building,” Darling said. The process included getting conditional-use permits for the business (because the area is zoned residential), as well as childcare licensing through the state.
   “I feel like I could be a consultant, and I probably will go into that. It was quite a process to know how to get a conditional-use permit and how to get your license,” she said. With all her papers in order, Darling opened the school in September 2004.
   Opening and running a preschool is definitely different from owning a normal business, she said. For example, there are the sink and temperature issues.
   “You have to do your vegetables in one sink, your dishwashing in another sink, your hand washing in another sink,” she said. “The furnace can’t be too noisy because children are learning to read. You have to have the school a certain temperature.”
   Overall, however, the preschool startup process has been a positive one, she said.
   “It’s so rewarding. And a lot of people might say, ‘Drain-ville, how can you do it, Netta?’ But that’s why it’s not draining to me,” she said. “I’m really making a huge difference in my community.”

Preschool, not childcare
   She has gained a lot of insight in the process as well.
   For instance, she serves vegetarian and organic lunches and snacks to stay “neutral” for parents, so that all special diets can be accommodated. This spirit of flexibility and fairness is something she has tried to incorporate with both parents and employees.
   Parents are asked to enroll their children for a minimum of six hours per week, and the business offers flexible drop-off times for parents because the school has three distinct programs daily, meaning kids don’t miss any of the school’s offerings regardless of when they are scheduled to arrive.
   “We do flexible drop-offs because we are helping families, and not just helping kids,” Darling said. Charges for parents average out to be about $5 per hour, or $25 per day (which includes lunch and snack) — rates that she said are on par with other area preschools. Under state law, preschools can only have students for a maximum of four hours per day. Anything longer than that time period, and the business much be licensed as a childcare facility.
   While childcare centers may be less expensive options, the preschool setting allows parents to better customize their child’s learning experience, said Denise Heritage, the parent of 6-year-old Macy, who is enrolled in A Little Darling’s after-school program.
   “There seem to be a zillion preschools (in Bellingham), and they are all different,” Heritage said. “They all cater to everybody’s different needs.”
   A Loving Space’s Franklin, who has owned her business — which includes a kindergarten and preschool — for nearly 14 years, said there is a definite difference between preschools and childcare facilities.
   “What (preschools) are doing is not childcare. And childcare is probably a little less expensive, hourly,” Franklin said. “There are many different choices (of preschools). If you want a real structured, adult-directed environment, you can go to a certain school. If you want something where your child is learning more through exploration and it’s a more child-directed environment, then you can go to this school. If you want something religious, you can find it. And I think (the diversity) is really important.”
   Darling also prides herself on trying to pay higher-than-average wages for preschool work. The school’s 14 teachers typically make between $9 and $13 per hour. Since the school’s opening, teachers have stayed at the school for an average of two years, she said.
   Franklin said working with limited resources is a constant challenge.
   “To provide this enriched, stimulating, creative environment, there is a lot of overhead,” she said. “And I’m certainly, in no way, in this for the money. But I do find that challenging. I wish there were some sort of state subsidy — something that would help because I know it’s hard for parents to pay more money, but it’s also hard to have enough money to run the program the way that I need to.”
   Communicating with parents has been a challenge, Darling said, while connecting with the kids has always been easier — most likely because she has a clear vision of what she wants to accomplish.
   “We want it to be home,” she said. “We want it to be like they are visiting at a friend’s house. Everything is their size so they can play with it.”
   And she means everything. Coat racks, water fountains, and sinks — all of it has an “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” feel. This environment allows the kids to function on their terms, and lessons are more readily available.
   “The main thing about our school is that it’s a child-directed, teacher-guided program, and so everything that we do is trying to teach them,” Darling said. The kids will glean lessons without even knowing it, she said.
   Even playing with water outside contains lessons, she said.
   “They are learning about displacement, balance, volume — all of these things,” Darling said. “Maybe they don’t know that’s what it’s called, and we’re not telling them what it’s called, but it’s making a pathway so that in fifth grade when they talk about volume, and the question is put out by the teacher, it’s not foreign to the child because there has been a pathway between synapses that has already been made.”
   In Darling’s opinion, the Bellingham preschool scene could use some more schools to deal with the tremendous amount of need, as is evidenced by the approximately 120 people on her own school’s waiting list.
   However, not just anyone can or should start a school, Darling said.
   “It’s got to have somebody really passionate behind it, because just as all teachers know, we work double the amount that most people do,” she said. “I’m here every day of the week. You need to be really commited and have a lot of passion.”
   In the meantime, both the little darlings at A Little Darling and owner Darling will keep doing their things.
   “If I own my own school, I can make a difference for families,” she said. “I can make a difference for kids. I can make a difference for me because I’m going to get so much love it’s crazy.”

 

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