Princeton Nursery School celebrates 90 years of assisting working families

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Photo by Samantha Brandbergh
An employee at Princeton Nursery School helps one of the children attending the school with an art project. (Photo by Samantha Brandbergh)

Tucked between homes on Leigh Avenue in Princeton sits a pale yellow building with a bright red door. Inside and up a flight of stairs, each colorfully numbered in Spanish and English, some children are busy in a classroom, while a younger group gets ready for lunch downstairs.

The over 100-year-old property currently houses Princeton Nursery School (PNS), which celebrates its 90th anniversary this year.

PNS was founded in 1929 by Margaret Matthews-Flinsch with the goal of providing a preschool curriculum for children who come from low-income, working class families and communities.

“We provide the care so people can work, while also working to break the poverty cycle,” Rosanda Wong, the nursery’s director, said.

According to Wong, 89 percent of the students at PNS this school year come from families living below the poverty level and 62 percent of the students are Latino. This school year, there are 48 students enrolled at the school.

Eighty percent of the students come from the Princeton area, while the remainder live in Lawrence Township, West Windsor and Trenton; many of these residents work in Princeton.

Additionally, the four main occupations for the students’ parents are landscaping, construction, cleaning and kitchen services, Wong said.

When PNS was first established, most of the students were either African-American or Italian-American, Wong said, but the ethnic variation within the school changed over time.

When the need for assisting in communication with students and their parents arose, PNS hired bilingual teachers or teaching aides for every classroom. However, within a few months, Wong said, Spanish-speaking students are “blossoming” and are able to become more fluent in English.

“[The students] really hit the ground running when they go into Kindergarten,” Eileen Todd, a volunteer for PNS, said. “They’re coming in speaking English and that’s huge for the public school community.”

With a staff of nine employees, PNS welcomes volunteers from the community, local organizations and schools. Princeton University, which is just a few blocks from PNS, brings students every week throughout the school year to volunteer with the children. The Princeton Public Library occasionally holds story time — in English and Spanish — at PNS, and the Princeton Art Council brings in an art teacher to work on projects with the students.

PNS goes beyond standard education, Wong said, as the school also brings in a pediatric dentist as part of an oral hygiene program. The school counselor also works with parents to discuss child development concerns and provide them with support.

“When people think of Princeton, they typically think of this affluent town,” Wong said. But with all of the positives Princeton provides, there was still a “huge need” for a preschool program for working families.

Wong described the curriculum at PNS as “high-scope.”

“It’s about exploration and learning through discovery,” she said, adding that much of what the students learn in one subject is integrated into others.

A portion of the students at PNS come from “food insecure environments,” and take part in the Send Hunger Packing weekend program.

“[We] have people who don’t know when their next meal will be,” Todd said.

Every Wednesday, PNS picks up food from the Mercer Street Friends food bank in Ewing, and makes meal packages for the students who need it to take home after school on Fridays.

During school, the children are given two meals and a snack that are made on the premises, and a free or reduced lunch option is available for families who qualify.

“We function as a community to support families and children when they need our help,” PNS Board of Trustees President Danielle Bentsen said.

Bentsen, a pediatric radiologist who comes from a line of Syrian immigrants, is familiar with the life of a working-class family, and her father always emphasised education in her family.

“I think about how lucky I was to have those educational opportunities, and then I think about these children — many of [their parents] immigrated here and are working in the service industry,” she said “This [school] will give them a chance to continue their education. It’s a gift of the opportunity for an education for them.”

In addition to monetary donations, which can be made on the PNS website, the school also welcomes tangible donations. Every year, Johnson and Johnson donates backpacks filled with school supplies for the children, and local organizations and schools give anything from books to baby wipes to toys.

As PNS celebrates its 90th year, fundraisers and celebrations are scheduled to be held throughout the school year, such as a book reading and signing of “I Hear My People Singing: Voices of African American Princeton” by Kathryn Watterson and a block party to give back to the students, alumni and community.

“This is the most rewarding work in my 30 year career,” Wong said. “Everything [we] do is making an impact on these kids and their families.”