When Helen Haugsnes moved to Naperville in 1963, she was warned it wasn’t easy to get a child into nursery school here.
“I was told that no child had a chance of getting in … unless he was enrolled at birth! Honestly!” Haugsnes was quoted in The Naperville Sun by Genevieve Towsley more than 20 years later.
It wasn’t because nursery schools were as popular as today’s preschools. Quite the contrary, parents with several children saw no need to send their children to school so young, so there was just one small nursery school in town.
Towsley had written a column in 1964, introducing the then-conceptual Hobson School cooperative nursery school. The column publicized the school committee’s first fundraising project, a professional marionette performance of “Pinocchio.”
Thanks to that performance, the school’s founders raised a little more than $100 for the new school, and the fledgling Hobson School’s reputation for providing quality programs for children was established.
The red brick building on Hobson Road between Naper Boulevard and Washington Street had been home to elementary school children since 1928. It is one of the last of the original one-room schools in the area.
According to Hobson School records republished in a student- and teacher-produced booklet in 1941, the school site was chosen for several reasons, including: “It is near enough to a farm house to make trespassers feel uncomfortable.”
The Goodrich family donated the wooded property. Naperville contractor Charles Shiffler was chosen to build the one-classroom building. Specifications included “an automatic electric motor, which pumps water from a drilled well, electric lights, indoor flush toilets and an automatic stoker for heating the building.”
The classroom was equipped with child-sized open bookcases, encyclopedias, maps and a globe as well as a piano, Victrola and radio.
By 1946, however, it became cheaper to send children to the public elementary school in Naperville than to hire a teacher for the small school, and it closed.
A re-organization and consolidation of school districts prompted some rural schools, including Hobson, to be re-activated. From 1953-1958, first- through fourth-grade students again attended Hobson.
When Moser Highlands was constructed, the small school was overloaded with new students. That and the consolidation of districts 106 and 78 caused Hobson to close permanently as an elementary school in 1958.
The empty building was used as a training center for the Painters’ Union, for 4H and neighborhood meetings. Then in 1963, Haugsnes moved to Naperville and bemoaned the lack of nursery schools.
Haugsnes’ two older sons had attended a cooperative nursery school in Lombard. She asked staff members there to help parents in Naperville start a cooperative nursery school.
Meanwhile, Haugsnes set up a card table in front of the old Jewel in Naperville Plaza trying to recruit 20 families.
“Frankly,” she said. “We could just barely get 20. One of the things we promised parents was if they enrolled a child in the first year, they would never have to wait to get another child in. We didn’t know really if we’d have a second year, but it was a reason to sign up!”
With Ruth Turner and 18 other moms, Haugsnes formed Hobson Cooperative Nursery School. Turner’s husband, Philip, was president of the Naperville Board of Education and remembered the then-shuttered Hobson School. The board approved the use of the building in February 1964.
Parents used tables and chairs they found in the building, cutting them down to fit the children’s size. Books and toys were donated. With two borrowed teachers from York Center in Lombard, Hobson School opened that September. Tuition was $20 a month.
Children had to bring some unusual essentials on the first day: toilet paper, paper towels, soap.
“We had no money,” said Haugsnes with a laugh.
Several key philosophies still central to Hobson School began that year: the creation of an honorary advisory board whose members would serve over a long-term period. The first board included a nursery school director from Chicago, a psychology assistant professor from North Central College and a kindergarten teacher from Ellsworth School.
Then, as now, the school philosophy was that children learn best through play. Also, parental involvement was required for each family.
“It’s the parents working on behalf of their children,” Haugsnes said. “It wasn’t just me, there were families. It could not be done otherwise. Every year there are parents who want this and help it grow.”
During that first year, the “borrowed” teachers had difficulties making the longer-than-expected drive to Naperville. Dorothy “Dottee” Krejci offered to help teach, and the next year she became the school’s director/teacher.
Krejci began receiving phone calls from parents of children with special needs. When the subject was discussed by the board, it was decided no child should be excluded, so Krejci began teaching special education classes during the afternoons. This was the start of Naperville’s Little Friends, the nonprofit organization serving children and adults with autism and other developmental disabilities. Krejci eventually left Hobson to direct Little Friends.
The need was so great for developmentally disabled students that the program became bigger than the original preschool. For a year or two, the cooperative moved to St. John’s United Church of Christ.
But Little Friends quickly outgrew the Hobson space and gave the school back to the school district. The cooperative moved back in. By the school’s third year, prospective families stood in line to register.
Hobson School’s current director, Patrice Sullivan, arrived at Hobson 25 years ago the way many of its directors have — as a parent. The early childhood educator knew after talking to then-director Paula Olson that this was the place for her children.
“The philosophy was what I was looking for,” Sullivan said. “That it was a parent cooperative was a bonus.”
Now, parents help in the classroom once every five or six weeks and help run the business of the school through the parent board. Sullivan and her teachers run the educational program.
The school’s advisory board is made up of former parents, past directors and founders to oversee continuity of philosophy.
The private, non profit school has space for 20 children at a time. Four-year-olds attend three times a week; 3-year-olds twice a week; and parents with 2-year-olds on Saturday mornings.
The school’s natural surroundings are used daily. Students garden, sled on the small hill, climb on the playground equipment and take walks on the path in Goodrich Woods.
They use the binoculars in the reading loft to watch birds and animals outside through the line of big windows on the west wall of the charming classroom.
“Children need to be connected to nature,” Sullivan said.
The school keeps its ties with former students, including those who attended as elementary students.
A 40th-anniversary reunion included tales from about when the basement had a dirt floor and mothers served school lunches downstairs. Some of the school’s current students are children of former Hobson students.
A 50th anniversary fundraiser, Play is Golden, will take place next weekend. A 50th reunion at the school will meet in October, which was never imagined back in the early 1960s when Towsley wrote this in The Naperville Sun:
“The Hobson School building now stands unoccupied — a testimonial to a century of educational progress when our community advanced from … the most elementary of instruction during the winter months to our competently staffed modern buildings open most of the year. Hail and goodbye to Hobson School!”
Not so fast. Fifty years later, children are still learning at the little red-brick schoolhouse.
Joni Hirsch Blackman is a journalist and author of “Downtown Naperville.” Contact her at email@example.com.