Courtesy photo | Some of the current staff members at Oak Ridge United Methodist Church Weekday School.
by NORA MURRAY
When asked what they value most about Oak Ridge United Methodist Church's Weekday School program, parents we spoke with responded with a common theme:
"I do not worry about my kids when I am at work," said Erin Browning Bull, a parent of two - and a former student at the weekday school. "I know they are well-cared for, loved and learning."
"The teachers and staff are what have kept us here for eight years," Christen Davis said. "Our kids have always come home happy and feeling loved. They have made lots of friends and were both very prepared when they started kindergarten."
"We are blown away by the love our children experience by their classmates and teachers," said Christi Taylor, ORUMC associate pastor and parent of two students in the Weekday School's afterschool program.
On Sunday, June 3, parents, families, members of the church and the community are invited to join in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the weekday school - which all started with a group of local people who saw a need for a full-time daycare center and kindergarten program.
"It started because of the money made available from the Oak Ridge Horse Show (a long-standing fundraiser held over Easter weekend)," explained Eleanor Johnson, the weekday school's first director.
"Buster Linville (who was very involved with the horse show) was leading a group of people who wanted a daycare center and kindergarten, because (at that time) in North Carolina there wasn't a public school kindergarten," Johnson said. "At the time, more mothers were going to work and they needed childcare."
Johnson said Linville, a member of ORUMC, thought the church's new education building would be the perfect spot to house the daycare and kindergarten program.
"There were two main rooms that the children were in during school time and play time and there were bathrooms connecting them," Johnson said, adding that that first year there were about nine children in the kindergarten program, six in preschool and a few more in the after-school program.
"I had no direction, but I was able to organize all the details," Johnson said with a laugh. "I did the books for a summer camp and I had just graduated with a teaching degree, so I had a little bit of background to put the curriculum together."
Johnson sees the community initiative and support as one reason the program was successful right from the beginning. In fact, the weekday school's website says the first board of directors was appointed from among the membership of three local churches, Central Baptist Church, Moravia Moravian Church and ORUMC.
"It does bring a community together when people have one common goal," she said. "I've driven past the school several times since we've left there to see the name and the sign, and it's still so incredible to me that it is a growing entity."
In 1971 the school transitioned from a community project to a mission of ORUMC. The weekday school now serves 162 students, and last fall it added an additional after-school class in response to the growing demand.
"It is a living way we serve the community throughout the week," Taylor said. "The children learn valuable life lessons and spiritual lessons each day from the program."
The sense of community and family is still evident, and several former students have even returned to the school as teachers or parents.
"If you walk down the hall you can tell the teachers do love these kids like their own," said Jamie Hatchell, the weekday school's current director. "The teachers are a close group, too, and I think the parents can feel that. It's just a positive work environment, which goes a long way and makes a positive classroom."
For some, the sense of family wasn't a huge leap. Sisters Judy Hunsucker and Sandra Watson taught together at the school for just under 30 years, and now they each have daughters working at the school.
"I made some life-long friends of parents from the daycare who brought their babies here," Watson said.
"And now we're seeing those babies have babies of their own," Hunsucker added.
One of those "babies having babies" is Bull, whose two children attend the weekday school.
"Sandra Watson was one of the teachers who taught my brother and me when we attended, and now Sandra's daughters teach Jason (Bull's son)," she said. "There are multiple generations who care for each other and make this a truly special community."
Watson and Hunsucker said they took pride in working for a quality education program that was also a mission of the church.
"They have chapel here for the children," Watson said. "There are some children who walk through our doors and don't get the opportunity to go to church. This is their church."
"We have parents who told us they didn't go to church, but they liked that their children were able to learn about God," added Hunsucker.
For Dara Barnes, it was the Weekday School that drew her and her family to ORUMC.
"We had been visiting churches in the area, and when we stumbled upon the Weekday School we found both a home for our children during the day and our church family," Barnes said. "It is even more important to us today as our children are getting older."
Besides the spiritual component that parents value in the school's offerings, they also appreciate that it is a 5-star-rated licensed center, the highest rating a center can receive from the state.
"The director has spent a lot of time researching curriculums of surrounding elementary schools and implemented changes to the preschool curriculum that ensures the kids are truly ready to jump into kindergarten," Barnes said.
Hatchell credits her teachers for a lot of the school's success.
"All of our teachers are here for the right reason," she said. "They really care; the older generation of teachers really instills that in the younger generation and it carries on."
Hunsucker and Watson shared memories of one specific teacher who passed on her passion to them.
"Ms. Ingram," they said together.
"Have you heard that name?" Watson asked. "She sure does need some credit. Her name was Elois Ingram.
"She was here a long time and she loved this daycare," Hunsucker said.
"She was one of the best, most wonderful ladies to ever walk through those doors," Watson said, adding, "And she came back when she was in her 80s to substitute for us!"
Similar stories and memories of teachers, students, family and friends will be shared when the church holds a 50th anniversary celebration of the Weekday School this Sunday, June 3, at a special 11:15 a.m. service in the Family Life Center. This will be the only service the church will have that day, so the entire church community will be together for the celebration.
"We're inviting former and current parents and staff members, children will sing and a group will play hand-chimes," Hatchell said. "(We're celebrating because) it has been a long time for this school to be making an impact on the community."