Co-op travails: Molly Michie seeks preschoolers—and their parents

Dwindling enrollment at Molly Michie, the city’s oldest co-operative preschool and the first to integrate, casts a pall on its future.
Courtesy Molly Michie Dwindling enrollment at Molly Michie, the city’s oldest co-operative preschool and the first to integrate, casts a pall on its future. Courtesy Molly Michie

Faced with a recent decline in enrollment, the city’s first co-operative preschool, which has operated for more than 50 years, is struggling to stay on its feet.

Molly Michie Cooperative Preschool was founded in 1967 as the city’s first integrated preschool, with an emphasis on learning through play. Being a co-op means parents are deeply involved in running the school, serving as classroom assistants to two professional teachers and taking on other tasks. Supporters say this builds community as well as allowing the school to offer more affordable tuition.

Teachers and parents say it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what led to the drop in enrollment.

“There were a lot of changes that came at once,” says Casandra Wendell, who teaches the four- and five-year-old “butterflies.”

She says a former teacher who wasn’t as committed to the co-op model negatively affected parent involvement. And right around the time that teacher left, the school was forced to move from its home of 45 years, the Unitarian Universalist church on Rugby Road.

The school has now lived at the Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church for about five years, but co-op supporters fear it isn’t as recognizable as it once was.

And “the economy has something to do with it,” says Krista McMullen, who teaches a group of “caterpillars,” as the two and three year olds are dubbed. She says there are more working families now, who don’t have the availability to pitch in at school.

“There’s nobody but teachers and parents who keep the school afloat,” says Wendell.

While the school can accept approximately 30 families, and used to have a waitlist at its old location, she says only 15 families are currently enrolled. And though she calls it a “low point” in the preschool’s history, she’s confident they’ll bounce back.

“We’re not at that place anymore,” she adds, referring to the school’s earlier troubles. “Now we have an amazing support system.”

On a cold December day, the playground at Molly Michie is nothing short of chaos for those not used to being surrounded by a dozen small children. A girl in purple leggings whizzes by, making shrill monkey noises that echo throughout the neighborhood. She chases a boy in and out of a miniature wooden cabin as two of her friends attempt to defy gravity by climbing up a bright green slide. Another girl flings herself into fast rotations on a tire swing.

McMullen watches the kids play while chatting with their parents. She recently transferred from the “very traditional” Daylily Preschool in Crozet, and says the difference has been astounding.

“I feel really supported,” she says, adding that parents are able to observe what she’s teaching their kids and take those practices home with them. And since parents take on jobs like cleaning and preparing lunch, she’s able to focus on her lesson plans and time with the kids.

In an effort to grow and increase enrollment, the school hopes to be able to accept six year olds next year who are taking a “kindergarten gap year,” says Wendell. And they also plan to start a summer program in June.

The school, McMullen adds, has a very rich history. “We don’t want to lose that.”—Samantha Baars