September 12, 2018

Princeton Nursery School is a Fixture In the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood

DEVELOPING THE WHOLE CHILD: Playing and academics are “a beautiful balance” at Princeton Nursery School, says Director Rosanda Wong. The school is about to celebrate its 90th anniversary of educating local children.

By Anne Levin

Inside a plain yellow building on Leigh Avenue, generations of Princeton children have received their first taste of life in the classroom. Princeton Nursery School has been a mainstay in Princeton’s Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood for nearly nine decades.

Space is tight and maintenance is a constant concern. But the school’s administrators have resisted suggestions that it move to larger, roomier quarters. “People ask why we don’t relocate,” said Rosanda Wong, the executive director since last year. “It comes down to three things: We own the property. We don’t have the cash reserves. And most importantly, there is a history here.”

Keeping the school in the neighborhood is key, added Wong, because many of the 46 students are from working families who live within walking distance. They drop their kids off at 7:30 a.m. and pick them up at 5:30 p.m., knowing they have had breakfast, lunch, and a snack — 261 days a year. Tuition costs $1,150 a month, but only one family currently pays the full amount, Wong said. Some of the families qualify for a subsidy. Some pay $20 a month; others pay $150 or more.

“The only requirement to come here is that parents are working, and most are in landscaping, construction, cleaning, restaurant kitchens, and office jobs,” she said. “Nearly 70 percent are within federal poverty guidelines. So they pay it forward when they can. Fathers who are in landscaping or construction help with those kinds of issues. They fix things. They help a lot.”

The school’s 90th birthday celebration is currently in the planning stages. There is a lot to celebrate, said Wong, a native of Australia whose background is in private schools including Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart. “I came here because I wanted to make more of an impact,” she said. “Its mission just spoke to me.”

Princeton Nursery School was founded by a wealthy Princeton resident, Margaret Matthews-Flinsch, to help working mothers who desperately needed a place for their pre-school-aged children to go during the day. “She was moved to start the school when she found that her laundress was locking her child in the servants’ quarters while she worked,” Wong said. “She saw there was a need, and she asked her wealthy friends to contribute. That’s how it began.”

The school follows the HighScope curriculum, which encourages active, participatory learning. “Math and literature are integrated,” said Wong. “It gets the children to use verbal skills and to think. It’s academic, but they play as well. It’s a beautiful balance.”

The school has been multicultural since its inception. “What I love about this school is that it doesn’t matter where you come from,” said Wong. “There is a variety, from children of landscapers to children of visiting scholars.”

Two houses converted into one have served as headquarters since the school’s inception. The current focus of ongoing fundraising is the kitchen, which serves 37,000 meals a year and is in desperate need of upgrading. Wong expanded the board of trustees when she came on to include people of various talents. “This is a working board,” she said. “They don’t just raise money. They do maintenance, they paint, and help out wherever they can.”

The school relies on volunteers, some of whom are alumni. The Pace Center at Princeton University provides 10 to 15 students a week each semester, one of whom has been coming back for three years. Many volunteer beyond what is required, Wong said. “We also have retired adults who come in. And during the summer, we have high school and college students. Corporations and private schools do service days here, and Mercer County’s  Human Services Department gives us five volunteers as part of its summer youth employment program. With all of this help, our teachers can really provide engagement for the kids.”

There is additional assistance from Princeton Public Library, the Arts Council of Princeton, and other sources. “There is a need here,” said Wong. “And not many people know about us.”

On a recent summer afternoon, a table just inside the front door of the building was covered with fresh produce from the Mercer Street Friends Food Bank. Along one wall, shelves held shoes, clothing, and other donated items.

“Our families are welcome to take whatever they need,” said Wong. “Helping them helps the kids, and it’s all about them. Our mission hasn’t changed in 90 years. Every dollar we raise goes directly to the children. We need to make sure our doors stay open for them.”