The bell atop the Stone School Cooperative Nursery, 2600 Packard, still rings as it did when it was a one-room school. The heavy bell is rung by the nursery school students, with the aid of a teacher, to mark the end of the morning and afternoon sessions. “They get excited when it’s their turn to ring it,” says teacher Barbara Hutchinson. “It’s the best part of their day.”
From the outside, the building looks much as it did when it was built a century ago. The front door still opens into a hall with cloakrooms on either side, one originally for the girls and the other for boys. “The boys’ room had shelves and hooks for dinner pails and coats and was also used for wood storage,” an early grad recalled at the school’s 100th anniversary celebration in 1953. “The girls’ was the same except for the wood. A round wood-burning stove sat in the middle of the room.” Today boys and girls share one cloakroom; the other is the office.
The present building is actually the second stone schoolhouse on this corner. The first was built in 1853 to serve children from nearby farms. Benajah Ticknor, who built the house that today is the city’s Cobblestone Farm, leased a triangle of land at the edge of his farm to Pittsfield Township with the stipulation that it be used for a school.
By 1911 the old school had become overcrowded, so the community gathered to build a new one. Residents took the old one down as soon as school closed in June and by working all summer had the new building ready by fall. They reused the stones from the old school, supplemented with stones cleared from nearby farms.
From 1918 to 1927 the school was used by Eastern Michigan Normal (today’s EMU) as a training school for student teachers–with half of the supervising teacher’s salary paid by the college. During this time hot lunches were served and a ninety-foot well was dug, eliminating the need for the bigger boys to tote pails of water from a neighboring farm. When Eastern abandoned it, the school was organized into grades, from kindergarten through junior high. (Before then, students arriving in the fall had just started in their primers wherever they had left off the previous spring.)
As the surrounding farms were developed after World War II, the school again became too crowded. In 1949, a new cement block building was built across the street, and the old school was boarded up. But growth was so rapid that just three years later, it was again needed. With money furnished by the Pittsfield school board, the PTA added a kitchen in the basement and built a cinder block addition on the back to house a bathroom–until then, students had used outhouses. The refurbished school hosted noon hour activities, movies, Boy and Girl Scout meetings, music, physical education, and speech correction classes.
In 1955, Pittsfield School District No. 7 was absorbed into the Ann Arbor Public Schools. The old school was again unneeded, so a group of parents requested permission to reopen it as a nursery school.
The school board agreed, renting the building to the Stone School Co-op Nursery. That arrangement continued until 1994, when the school board announced they planned to put the building up for sale. The nursery parents loved the school and wanted to stay, but by then the building was more than eighty years old and very run-down. “It was a very scary time,” recalls Hutchinson.
The parents asked the school board to give them a year to find the money to buy the building. Barbara Loomis, a recently retired librarian, took the leadership on fund-raising. Her son had attended the school in the 1950s, and her grandchildren were then enrolled. The parents met the deadline and in October 1995 bought the building for $120,000. In 2005 they paid off their mortgage, becoming one of the few co-op nurseries in North America to own its building.
When the nursery bought the stone school, tile was falling off the roof, the window frames were rotting, the masonry at the entrance was crumbling, the trim needed painting, and the basement needed remodeling. But Loomis was sure that it was worth saving. “It’s beautifully constructed and solid as can be,” she says. “The windows on the north are long and skinny, while on the south they are big and cover the whole wall. Even then they knew about southern exposure for light and heat.”
Loomis got the building placed on the National Register of Historic Places and then landed a grant to fix the roof and chimney. She recalls that it was quite a challenge to match the tiles–“only one company still made them.”
Most co-op nurseries share their space, usually with a church. Owning their building gives the parents who run Stone School more freedom. For example, they designed the playground specifically for preschoolers. However, it also means they have to do all the upkeep–cleaning, shoveling snow, raking leaves.
One year the parent volunteers had extra help with their year-end cleaning. Loomis received a call from the police, who had found the school’s sign in the trunk of a car they had stopped. Some fraternity boys had stolen it as a prank. When asked if they wanted to press charges, the school leaders decided not to, as long as the boys helped with the cleaning. “When they were done, they had more respect for the parents,” recalls Loomis.
The school’s two paid teachers, Hutchinson and Annie Zipser, have both been there twenty-two years. They are assisted by two or three volunteers, depending on the size of class. In the early days the helpers were always mothers of children in the school, but now it is not unusual to have fathers or other relatives. “We have three grandparents who are the primary assists and several others who come as treats,” reports Anna Mae Trievel, co-president of the co-op.
The students are also more diverse, with many ethnicities and races represented. “We usually have a few children who are new to this country, who don’t know English,” says Zipser. “We tell the parents to make sure they know the word for bathroom.”
The co-op philosophy has not changed over the years. “We believe in learning through play,” explains Hutchinson. Recent projects include units on dinosaurs, outer space (including building a rocket ship), weather, butterflies, and planting seeds. Field trips include the fire station on Ellsworth, Wild Swan Theater, and the Leslie Science Center.
Since the children haven’t yet experienced regular school, the teachers don’t say a lot about the building’s past as a one-room schoolhouse. “The kids are pretty young to make much of it, but they are aware,” says Loomis. Trievel tells of her daughter Caitlyn’s first visit to Greenfield Village: “She saw the one-room schoolhouse and said, ‘This is like my school!'”
The Stone School Co-op Nursery is hosting an ice cream social from 2-4 p.m. on Saturday, May 14, to celebrate the building’s centenary.