2019 marks the 66th anniversary of the Cotati-Rohnert Park Co-op Nursery School (CRPCNS) educating young children in the community. Established in 1953 by a group of local mothers, the nursery school is entwined with the history of Cotati and the surrounding area. The school's alumni include the children of some of Cotati's early residents: Hahn, Oretsky, Roberts, and Fishman.
In 1958, students at the nursery school were invited by Charles Schulz to "drop by anytime you wish" to meet the famous cartoonist. His hand-signed letter is in the school archives. The school continues to maintain strong ties with the community. Cotati City Council member Lisa Moore was a past vice-president, for example, and a number of nursery school alumni living in the area now send their own children to the school.
Today the idea of early childhood education is well established and preschools are prevalent. But in 1953, when the entire population of Cotati numbered in the hundreds and Rohnert Park was just getting off the ground, the CRPCNS was considered something of a novelty in rural Sonoma County. Advocates of the idea worked hard to persuade others of the importance of early childhood education as this 1957 excerpt from a letter in the CRPCNS's archives shows: "Healthy, mentally alert, socially responsive, emotionally stable and spiritually sensitive children are the hope of today and of the future. For this reason, pre-school education has wide significance for our community."
"It was a hard road," recalls Elaine Thomas, a parent who joined the nursery school soon after it opened. "Not everyone wanted a nursery school around. We didn't have a lot of funding so we used whatever means we had." Support for the nursery school came from tuition, donations, and lots of parent volunteers - much as it does today.
Run and managed by parents as a non-profit co-op, the nursery school gives young children ages two to five a play-based learning environment that is broader than home but smaller and more sheltered than kindergarten. Parents attend the school with their child on at least a weekly basis giving the school a distinctly supportive and caring feel. Says Maureen Schmidt, the school's professional teacher/director from 1995-2012, parent involvement is what makes this school different and what has been the key to its longevity.
Parents like to be involved. The co-op gives parents the chance to actively participate in their child's first school experience and that has always been its primary appeal.
Back in the 50s, the CRPCNS began as an outgrowth of the Petaluma Cooperative Nursery School. Alice Wright, one of two teachers at the Petaluma co-op, was about to lose her job due to a funding cut but learned that funding was available to start a new nursery school in a different district, according to notes from Deborah Lipton, the daughter of one of the school founders. Wright approached Gerry Lipton, the mother of one of her current pupils, who seized upon the opportunity to start a cooperative nursery school in Cotati close to where the Lipton family lived.
Lipton gathered a group of her friends with young children and together they founded the Cotati Co-op Nursery School, which served Cotati, Penngrove, Petaluma and the rural areas of Roblar, Liberty, Dunham, and Cinnabar. Some of the other founding mothers included Mae Cohen, Donia Oretsky, Mollie Lewtter, Pearly Cutler, Gladys Nitzberg, Laiki Sani, and Tressa Sannella. Wright served as the teacher/director for a number of years before being succeeded by Oneida Porrit.
The nursery school moved through a series of temporary locations starting with a renovated room in the Auto Court Motel (located on the Old Redwood Highway next to what is now Mary's Pizza Shack). Other locations included the first floor of a house (occupied by a family upstairs) on Old Redwood Highway; the Fellowship Hall of The Church of the Oaks; and a cottage (now demolished) in the "hub."
In 1963, Dr. John Roberts, the local family practitioner, built the current school and leased it back to the CRPCNS. Recalls his son, Mark Roberts, "[My dad] loved the community of Cotati."
"He chose Cotati in the late 40s because he wanted to be the town's only doctor. He was always very connected to the people here. Back in the days of house calls, he used to say he knew the floor plan of every house in Cotati. Over the years, he came to love the nursery school. It was part of the community."
"It's nice to see that the school is still there and to know that the program has endured and that parents are still interested in the co-op approach," says Pat Pyler whose son attended the nursery school in 1958 and whose grandchildren also attended.
While he supported the CRPCNS in principle, Dr. Roberts initially had some doubts about its longevity, according to Elaine Thomas, who was school board president at the time. It was, after all, run by parent volunteers. Dr. Roberts hedged his bets and built the school building so that it could easily be converted to a residential duplex should the school not become successful. He needn't have worried, Cotati-Rohnert Park Co-op Nursery School (now owned by the parent members) continues to thrive up until this very day.