An era ends; another begins
But that era is over, and a new one has begun.
The Learning Tree and the ABC centers are now defunct, replaced by the new singular program, The Children’s Garden.
Soon the two buildings will be torn down and replaced by one. And Moe Mulrooney, one of the most prominent figures in early childhood education in the Vail Valley, will retire as director and teacher at The Learning Tree.
“This program has been operating for 25 years, and this community has only really been established for 35 years,” says Learning Tree school teacher Cricket Pylman, who is also retiring from the program. “Considering how long it’s been around, you can understand why the schools have become such a part of the valley.”
The early days
In 1978, the ABC and The Learning Tree schools began their separate programs in a forested spot above Spraddle Creek – land which the town gave to founders for a reasonable $1-a-year lease. The schools were two of the first 10 schools in the United States to garner “high-quality” accreditations from the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Mulrooney, founder of The Learning Tree, says the quality of the program is greatly attributable to the school’s invaluable staff.
“Each and every director was a teacher as well,” Mulrooney says. “We were all close with the children, and close with each other. It became a second family to everyone involved.”
Though only feet apart, the two schools functioned as separate programs with different functions.
“ABC was a center for the working parent, while Learning Tree was a center for the cognitive development of young children,” Mulrooney says. “The Children’s Garden has taken on the mission and vision of the Learning Tree more so than ABC, but the transition was a smooth one, with hands-on input from teachers, alumni and parents from both programs.”
Mulrooney and Pylman say The Children’s Garden will not be a “day-care” center but a center for early childhood education.
“There is no word “day-care,'” says Pylman. “Not here. Not in the past, not in the future, not ever. This is an educational program, not a young-human version of a coat check.”
So what, if not dreaded “day-care’, is the vision of the new school?
“It very much follows in the Reggio Emilia philosophy that Moe established and developed in her 25 years,” says Liz Leeds, whose two children, now 5 and 7 years old, attended The Learning Tree.
The Reggio Emilia philosophy – imported from Italy, where Moe travelled to study – encourages independence, responsibility and creativity.
“The basis of the theory is that children are strong and competent individuals,” Mulrooney says. “It also sees the environment as a teacher, the teacher as a researcher who studies the children and the general ambiance of the classroom as an imperative factor in the learning process.”
The approach also emphasizes the importance of celebrating the work of the child.
“Don’t just tack a child’s picture on the wall – frame it, hang it nicely, let them know that you appreciate and value their talent and intelligence,” she says.
The effects of such praise, says parent-alumni of the school, are immeasurable.
“By the time they go to kindergarten, they were totally prepared,” says Leeds of her two children. “It was such a smooth transition for them. “Big-kid school’ was really just like an extension of the Learning Tree experience.”
Jane McNeill, whose 4-year-old son, Gavin, attended The Learning Tree and now attends The Children’s Garden, agreed heartily.
“Gavin came home one day and told me he’d learned to use scissors properly in class,” she says. “I was initially appalled. But then I came to understand that the teachers were instilling in the students a sense of responsibility and maturity. I’m sure that these qualities will see him through his early schooling, and for that I can’t thank the school or the teachers enough.”
From the mouths of babes
Perhaps the most powerful testimonies about the programs come from the children who grew up at The Learning Tree and ABC centers.
“We loved it here,” says Celia Smith, a life-long attendee of the ABC school. “It was such a good place. Now we’re in first and second grades, and we miss it.”
“I remember walking down these stairs in a tutu,” says Casey Pylman, daughter of Cricket Pylman and a graduate of The Learning Tree. “And nap time. But we never slept – we always talked, but we whispered so the teachers couldn’t hear us.”
Valley residents as old as 19 are still tied to the friends they made at The Learning Tree and ABC.
“So many of the children that have attended this school are still best friends with the kids they were in classes with,” said one teacher from The Learning Tree. “It brings the whole community together.”
“We’re really sad,” adds Haley Martin as she stands beside longtime friend and classmate Casey Pylman. “We were gonna protest, because we’re gonna miss it so much, but we’re all still friends, so we have each other.”
David Gray, another graduate of the Learning Tree, reflected on his perception of the rooms when he was 2 feet shorter.
“I remember thinking that everything was so big, like in the bathroom and the water fountain and stuff,” Gray says. “Now it all seems so tiny.”
McNeill’s son, Gavin, is a bit shy about voicing his memories, but his mother happily steps in.
“Gavin loves it. He gets so excited to go to school,” Jane McNeill says. “All of his best friends he made through coming here.”
Cross-section of the community
The Learning Tree and ABC have schooled the children of some of the most prominent families in the Vail Valley.
“She’s taught children from each of the Slifer, Smith and Frampton families,” says Rick Pylman, Cricket’s husband. “And also Olympic hopeful Toby Dawson.”
But the schools have taught more than just big-name kids.
“We’ve also had the children of local plumbers, carpenters, ski instructors, and all kinds of valley residents,” Cricket Pylman says. “I’ve really met such a cross-section of the community while working here.”
Many parents agree.
“It’s been so nice for me to have Gavin at the school,” says Jane McNeill. “I know so many of the mothers from the old days. We used to go out together, and now our kids go to school together.”
Looking into the future
The two existing buildings are due to be torn down to make way for a housing project. The new Children’s Garden Center, meanwhile, projected to be completed in 15 months, will be slightly east of the current buildings.
Perhaps most importantly, the $1-a-month lease will be renewed indefinitely.
The center has been moved to a modular building – essentially a trailer parked in the RV section of the Lionshead parking structure.
Has all the shuffling around disrupted the school?
“We’ve always been cooperative with them, and we’re grateful to have had this wonderful location for so long and for such a low cost,” one of the Pylmans explains.
Moe and Cricket plan to continue to visit The Children’s Garden, but will no longer be a part of the faculty.
Pylman will spend more time with her family, whereas Mulrooney will serve as an independent consultant to schools across Colorado and the nation.
“The fact that she’s moving on to consult with pre-school programs all over the state should say it all,” Leeds says. “She brought so much perspective and insight to the pre-school program here in the valley, and we’re so sad to see her go. But we would like to see children all over America benefit from her insight and talent.”