May 20, 2010

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After 32 years, the popular owner of The Schoolhouse in Flourtown retires

For 32 years, parents in the Flourtown area have sent their children to a The Schoolhouse in Flourtown, a pre school in a 130-year-old stone schoolhouse on East Wissahickon Avenue. Some of the parents now sending their toddlers to the school were once students.

This year, though, marks an end to an era at The Schoolhouse. Founding director Christine “Chris” DeWees announced earlier this year that she would retire in June leaving her schoolhouse to nearby Carson Valley School, which will control the venerable preschool when classes resume in the fall.

Dewees, 75, said she understood that the change would be hard for some to accept, particularly at an institution where many of the teachers have more than 20 years of service. Several children of current teachers also teach and work at The Schoolhouse. It’s a real family affair.

In fact, DeWees not only founded The Schoolhouse and served as its director since the school opened its doors in 1978, she moved in to the building a month before it opened and lived in the same apartment until late last year.  It was not only her life’s work. It was her home.

“Change is hard,” she said during an interview in her closet-sized office on Monday morning, “When I moved out of here and into my retirement village, it was hard. But change can be good. That is what I’m hoping for at The Schoolhouse. I see the change as so absolutely positive.”

(Disclosure: I found out about DeWees because my daughter is currently a student at The Schoolhouse. My son will start there in the fall.)

DeWees said that she knew the time had come to move on. She remains excited by the fact that the old apartment spaces in the schoolhouse will be renovated into at least four new classrooms by Carson Valley, and the program will expand to include younger, 2-year-olds, and will also add older kids in a Kindergarten program. Carson Valley will retain The Schoolhouse in Flourtown name.

A Germantown native, DeWees began her career as a teacher in the Springfield Township School district 55 years ago. She spent 30 years teaching for the district she said.

Half way through those years, the Springfield School District proposed an alternative school, popular in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, that would cluster students of various ages and grade levels together. DeWees went to work for the alternative school, which opened in the building that is now The Schoolhouse.

“That’s how I got to know and love the building,” she said.

In the ‘70s, Springfield’s student population decreased and the school system shrank. The alternative school left the schoolhouse and was moved to another building.

The building stood vacant for a number of years, but went up for sale in 1978. DeWees and another teacher, Ann Morgan, decided to buy the building to open a nursery school.

“That was 1978,” DeWees said. “It wasn’t easy for two single, divorced women to buy a school. But we found a bank that took a chance on us, and the rest is history.”

In September 1978, The Schoolhouse started with 10 children and two teachers, DeWees and Morgan.  She said living where she worked a was “marvelous” change from growing up in the city.  And as someone who never drove, it was the perfect situation.

“The commute was wonderful,” she said. “I could walk right through the door and down the hall and I was in school. My apartment looked out over the meadow.

The school continued to grow. This year, the school had 80 children and 22 staff members. The secret to all her success, Dewees said, is her teachers.

“My teachers are great,” DeWees said. “Even though they’ve been here forever, the themes are different. The art projects are different. How they come up with them, I have no idea. They are fabulous, fabulous people who put kids first and what’s important.”

Asked what she’ll miss after 55 years, DeWees said she will not miss the paperwork. What she will miss?

“Hugs,” she said. “There’s nothing like a kid. All of the sudden someone runs up and gives you  a hug for no other reason than they wanted to give you a hug.”

Though she is retiring, she has promised to help with the transition. Parents of current Schoolhouse students will likely still see her around. But The Schoolhouse, for the first time, will not be in her hands. But that’s OK for DeWees.

“The Lord gives you a certain amount of time to take care of things,” Dewees said. “You never really own anything. He gives them to you to take care of for a certain time. It’s time for the next thing.”


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