Keeping up with Gloria Kingsbury, founder and director of Happy Hollow preschool and kindergarten, is like trying to track a hummingbird.
On a typical day, the effervescent Mrs. Kingsbury is always on the move, one minute helping a three-year-old with computer work and the next leading older children in a rousing rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" while accompanying them on the piano.
"I'm a hands-on person," says Kingsbury, who manages to find time amid her other duties to bring doughnuts to her staff and take out the trash. As for students, they learn right away to expect a lighthearted touch from the director, who introduces herself with the rhyme, "I'm Mrs. Kingsbury, not Mrs. Strawberry."
When she opened Happy Hollow in 1955, this longtime educator had little idea what an influence she would eventually have on this community not far from Boston. A single mother, she had little money and wasn't sure what the future held. She knew she wanted to start a school - but loans were hard to come by for women. Finally, a local banker took a chance and loaned her funds to build a place to live and teach kindergarten.
A half-century and thousands of students later, the house has been fully converted into a school - and Kingsbury has developed a devoted following among parents, children, and educators here.
"She's probably one of the most talented early-childhood-education teachers I've ever met," says Nancy FitzGerald, one of two kindergarten teachers at the school and an early-childhood instructor at the North Attleboro campus of Fisher College.
Kingsbury earned a degree in education from Wheelock College in Boston, and immediately went on to get a master's degree in education at Columbia University in New York during World War II. Early-childhood ed was not a field then. "I learned my stuff from teaching," she explains.
She taught full time at the school for about 20 years until she got a license to increase enrollment to 65, and was required to devote all her time to being the school's director.
Know your children well
But that hasn't stood in the way of being intimately involved with the education of her students. She has sing-alongs each day with one group or another, and seems to know all pupils - past and present - by heart.
Each class at Happy Hollow begins with circle time, when students come together in brightly decorated rooms to talk. Children ages 4 and up say the Pledge of Allegiance. "I'm great about patriotism," says Kingsbury. "I feel strongly that children have to learn early in life that they live in a country where they can do a great many things."
She goes over the pledge line by line with the four-year-olds, and has them promise to do the best they can to help their country become a better place. She teaches students they have rights, but that others do, too. "I think a lot of schools are forgetting these values," she says.
The importance she places on such values is felt in the smallest of traditions at Happy Hollow: The school is still a place where writing thank-you notes and saying please and thank you are common.
But Kingsbury stays on the cutting edge, even as she promotes polite behavior. She keeps abreast of the latest methods, say staff members, embracing such tools as computers.
"We're in a computer age, aren't we?" she says. "I believe they're part of the world we live in."
The staff are an important part of Kingsbury's success. She calls them "my girls," and they are loyal to a director they say is brilliant, rarely takes time off, and pays them well.
"I love it. It's the best job I've ever had," says Susan Ward, who has been at the school for 12 years. "She treats us as professionals."
Kingsbury says one of the big problems around the country is that preschool teachers don't stick with jobs because they are poorly paid. "They don't feel respected if not paid well," she says.
Her respect for both adults and children, along with the warmth and energy she exudes, permeate the school, employees and educators say. Armed with paints, music, a wide variety of activities, as well as a knack for knowing what's on preschoolers' minds, Kingsbury and her staff develop not just good thinkers, but good citizens as well.
It's an approach that resonates with many parents. Kingsbury works to develop relationships with the moms and dads of her charges - some of whom attended her school - sending out regular newsletters and calling them personally.
"She has so much enthusiasm," says Gloria Gusha, mother of a kindergartner. "If you have that at the top, it's going to filter down." Mrs. Gusha says the first day she picked up her son she was early, and he scolded, "That's not long enough!"
Liliana Cledon looked at several area preschools before settling on Happy Hollow. She says the schools were often in windowless basements and had 18 or 20 children in one big room. She also recalls that most directors described their jobs as administrative, but Kingsbury "seems to be here all the time, not at a desk."
Enthusiasm for going to school
Indeed, Kingsbury's ability seemingly to be everywhere at once reassures parents - and others - that her views on a particular child are well informed.
"She always will give me the finest little details about how wonderful a child is, and that is something I don't always get from preschools," says Anne Bishop, head of the lower school at the private Fay School in Southborough, Mass. "I put a great deal of stock in what she tells me about a child."
Happy Hollow regularly has a waiting list, and parents looking for alternatives to public school have long hounded Kingsbury to add more grades. They want to prolong their children's exposure to small classes and multiple teachers at a school where the focus is the whole child.
To Kingsbury, it's key to imbue children with a love of learning. "That may sound trite," she says, "but it's very, very important to have them excited about going to school each day."
For students, Kingsbury is a principal who plays the piano and helps them pick up blocks. And they have no doubt about her role at Happy Hollow. "She's the boss of the school," says young Nick Ober. "And I mean, the boss."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society