Sabetha’s first preschool turns fifty
The Sabetha Community Preschool (SCP) has been a part of Sabetha’s history for 50 years, and it all began with a group of mothers who saw a need for their young children to have a structured learning environment to prepare them for kindergarten.
The goals of the preschool have not changed much over the years as this quote indicates from a Sabetha Herald article written in August 1973.
“Preschool is an aid to parents seeking a rich environment for the growth and development of their children. It is neither a competition nor a threat to a good home but is a supplement. A child’s happy experiences there can build a positive attitude toward the more formal learning situation of his school years.”
The First Year
Fifty years ago on Monday, Sept. 11, 1972, the SCP began its first day of classes in a classroom on the second floor of the Mary Cotton Public Library. Mrs. Donna Saylor was the head teacher, Mrs. Virginia Cavender assisted her and Dorothy Wenger was a volunteer.
“I remember how bright and airy that upstairs room was and what a wonderful and gracious volunteer Dorothy Wenger was!” Saylor said.
There were 20 students enrolled for the first year between the ages of three and four. The first students were Rodney Boltz, Lee Carlson, Jennifer Emert, Yvonne Thompson, Doug Wertenberger, Travis Shipman, Mary Finney, Kathy Steinlage, Sharon Strahm, Kristy Hertzel, Paula Gamble, Cheri Brougher, Danny Ott, Cynthia Moore, Debbie Chance, Robbie Ruddick, Camille Strahm, Scott Kreighbaum, Jud (Ed) Popkess and Shelly Scoby.
The first year was a learning experience for everyone.
“I think that first year it was basically getting our feet wet so to speak, and figuring out the program we wanted to teach,” Saylor said.
Shelly (Scoby) Schmelzle, who was one of the first preschoolers, remembered Mrs. Virginia Cavender and having school in the library.
“Virginia Cavender was an assistant teacher and beloved by all. I loved her,” Schmelzle said. “We had to walk up a very long flight of steep, steep steps with a metal handrail. I remember loving preschool, so I was willing to walk up those scary steps twice a week. I was barely three that first year I went.”
They were initially planning to have classes five days a week. However, since enrollment was low, they began the first year with only having classes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Some children attended all three days and some were enrolled to attend only two days a week. Those children met on Mondays and Wednesdays, and a few who desired only one day per week attended on Fridays.
Even though there were only 20 students who attended the first year, it more than doubled to 44 students the next year.
The Board of Directors during the first year were Mrs. Joseph Cooke, Dr. Waymer Strahm, Mrs. Darryl Emert, Mrs. Kenneth Alderfer, Mrs. Mike Shipman, Mrs. Gene Garrett and Rev. Kirby Hayes.
Many traditions have held through the years for the Sabetha Community Preschool.
Since its very first year, the preschool has entered a float in the Sabetha Rodeo Parade. They have even won first prize for their floats many times throughout the 50 years, including this year. SCP preschoolers also have enjoyed field trips to local farms and even visited the Topeka Zoo since its earliest years.
Other traditions they have held through the years are Donuts with Dad, Muffins with Mom, Mother’s Day tea, Christmas cookie exchange/decorating party, Christmas and Spring programs, they had a week long summer arts/education program called Little Leonardo’s, 1K Color Run, and many other fun activities through the decades.
Some of the first teachers were Mrs. Donna Saylor, Mrs. Virginia Cavender, Mrs. Janie Glace, Mrs. Linda Wertenberger, Mrs. Linda Heiniger, Mrs. Kay Brockhoff, Mrs. Marsha Hill and Mrs. Joni Aue.
Volunteers in the first years were Mrs. Dorothy Wenger, Mrs. Pauline Rokey, Kirk Summers, Gayla Reeves, Linda Hoffeber, Faye Ruse, Debbie Kneisel, Alma Aberle, Mildred Snooks, Frances Ott, Sonja Metzger, Leota Montgomery, Mabel Tanking, Sharon Clark, Leola Epple, Katie Halbert, Jeannie Shear, Connie Clark, Candee Lehmann, Carol Lehmann, Gerry Hayden, Cathy Strahm, Edith Lowdermilk, Susan Meyer, Farol Jack, Kathy Baumgartner, Peggy Studer and Dawn Peterson.
Other teachers who have taught more recently are Karla McKim, Shannon Garrett, Cindy Wiltz, Jennifer Nagely, Diana Jurgensmeier, Cheri Felton, Christa Schuette, Jennifer Strathman, Robyn Scoby and Darcy Jackman.
Other volunteers who have assisted are Tillie Menold, Wanda Bruggeman, Glennis Lippert, Kay Arnold, Marcia Sauer, Jean Lee, Jean Wenger, Bev Meyer and Joni Hackney.
Linda Wertenberger, who began teaching and was the Program Director beginning in 1974 and taught for several years after that, has fond memories from her time at SCP.
“Seeing those smiling faces walk in the door ready to play and learn with their friends. Sometimes ready to share and other times not. Watching their social skills develop and each unique personality being expressed,” Wertenberger said.
Jennifer Strathman, who taught from 2005 to 2017, recalls working with one of her preschoolers.
“While going over skills with a student,” Strathman said, “I could see him struggling to come up with an answer and he finally said, ‘My brain knows lots of things but my mouth doesn’t.’”
Working at SCP was a special and rewarding time for Strathman.
“SCP was truly the most rewarding job I have ever had,” Strathman said. “I worked with some talented ladies and made lasting friendships and had so many sweet, caring families in that classroom over the years.”
Current preschool teacher Robyn Scoby says that “SCP is a place where children love to learn,” and she has high hopes for the future of the preschool.
“Future plans – to continue serving the Sabetha and area community with a preschool program that encourages hands-on exploration and play in a joyful and structured environment with the guidance of Christian teachers, as well as classroom improvements.” Scoby said.
Being the first preschool in Sabetha it did not come without its challenges.
Preschools were foreign to the rural areas at the time and many people felt that it would just be a glorified daycare.
“This program offers an opportunity for your children to experience an advantage usually only available in metropolitan areas.”
From an article in The Sabetha Herald in 1972, it was emphasized further that the preschool was a “community organized school.”
“It is not a daycare and will not accept application for such. It’s primary goal is to prepare children for later learning by making them open to other persons and better able to relate and trust other people.”
According to Mrs. Linda Wertenberger, it was several years before the preschool was fully accepted.
In a letter to the editor in 1980, written by Wertenberger, she expressed that there was still a stigma of preschool being a babysitting service.
“After the discussion of the area candidates last Tuesday, I am sure most people feel that the Sabetha Community Preschool is just a baby sitting service provided by lay mothers.”
She goes on to explain that the social and emotional development the students get is important to have before they attend public school. She also emphasized that the staff members were not “lay mothers” as was suggested at the candidate discussion, and that the head teacher and program director were certified teachers.
“We are not lay persons doing a good job, but qualified teachers working to help children better adjust as people going into a demanding world.”
Besides trying to influence a community of the benefits of having a local preschool, SCP struggled to find a permanent facility for the children that was suitable for them to play and learn. There were strict regulations, such as fire codes, that had to be met.
The preschool was held at the library for the first school year, “but due to licensing requirements” they could not stay there, so then they moved to the Sabetha National Guard Armory for the 1973-74 school year.
However, more hurdles would lay ahead for SCP. They had only met at the armory for one school year when they were told that “due to National Guard regulations,” they would have to relocate. The Church of the Brethren stepped in and invited the preschool to use their basement until a more suitable place could be found. So, they spent the fall of 1974 to the spring of 1977 in the church basement.
In the summer of 1977, SCP signed a contract with the Armory to use their facilities as a meeting place four days a week, and agreed to vacate the premises in the event of a crisis.
Then, the last week in August, the Armory tried to back out of their contract when “a National Guard inspector said the contract was not valid and gave the group 24 hours to vacate. His contention was that the building is available for the use of outside parties on different occasions, but not on a regular basis.”
So, with two weeks until school would start and 48 excited children enrolled in preschool, SCP had to scramble. If the cancellation of the contract would go through, the preschool program was in jeopardy. Fortunately, for now, they were granted temporary use of the facilities.
Senator Larry Rogers, who also was at the meeting concerning the canceled contract, forwarded their complaints to Governor Robert Bennett in Topeka. In addition, several parents and interested parties went to Marysville that week, where Governor Bennett was having an open meeting, and they addressed their grief to him in person.
A bill was introduced to allow preschool children to use portions of National Guard Armories, and several Sabetha citizens visited the State Capital during the Legislative sessions. Mrs. Linda Wertenberger was among those who traveled to Topeka during that time. She recalled driving to Topeka with her dad.
Finally, luck was on their side. In March of 1978, State Bill 699 was passed in the Senate with a 28 to 11 margin and was then signed into law by Governor Bennett. SCP had a place to call home.
The preschool remained in the Armory until 1991, then they moved to their current location at the Sabetha Community Center.
About Sabetha Community Preschool
Sabetha Community Preschool, Incorporated, is a non-profit corporation. The preschool receives no federal subsidies and is financed by tuition, fundraisers and community donations. Employees include teachers and volunteers.
The board members for 2022-23 are Katherine Oesterreich, Stephanie Spersflage, Michaela Garza, McKenna Hulsing, Laura Thompson, Jaycee Mayo, Lindsey Anderson and Connie Joy.
The current teachers of SCP are Darcie Jackman, who is the director and preschool teacher for the older 4-5 year olds, and Robyn Scoby, who teaches the younger group of 3-4 year olds.
The 3-4 year old class is held on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8-11 a.m.
The 4-5 year old class is held on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 8-11 a.m.
SCP also offers an extended class program, which includes two additional mornings (Tuesdays and Thursdays) for those 4- and 5-year-old students preparing to enter kindergarten.
Children must be at least three years old prior to attendance, and they currently have 26 students enrolled for the 2022-23 school year.
Additionally, SCP does fundraisers and there are scholarships available to qualifying families.
“Since we are a non-profit, we do two to three fundraisers every year,” Scoby said. “We are doing trash bags, Butterbraids and a Pizza Hut day. We also have a fund through the Greater Sabetha Community Foundation [GSCF]. With the GSCF fund money, we are able to give one to three partial to full scholarships a year to qualifying families.”
Information for this story was gathered from past articles in the archives of The Sabetha Herald.