By Katie Doolittle
Snack time for Red Class at Eastside Cooperative Preschool: adults and children sit family-style around a large table. The two-year-old students pour their own water and politely pass bowls filled with string cheese and apple slices.
It may sound like a recipe for disaster, but the kids actually do a great job. And though preschool teacher Norma Larson is proud of them, she is certainly not surprised. “They know the routine. They do a lot of things for themselves. It’s all about respecting families and children and where they’re at,” she says.
Larson speaks from a wealth of experience. Educated in early childhood development, she’s spent years training colleagues and working in multiple preschool settings. Since the 1980s, Olympia families have benefited from her expertise, affection, and patience. Larson has spent most of those years teaching at Eastside Co-Op.
Certainly, one factor impacting Larson’s efficacy is that she believes so whole-heartedly in ECP’s play-based learning philosophy. “Children at this age learn through play. You put it in their hand, they put it in their mind.”
She also loves the cooperative preschool model, describing it as a triangulated community partnership: “There’s the college, the teacher, and the families. We all work together to provide the best education for the children.”
A bit of background: in a co-op model, parents are owners and operators of the school. They handle all of the business aspects and volunteer regularly in the classroom. Additionally, they enroll in parent education classes through South Puget Sound Community College. Volunteering is an opportunity to practice what they’ve encountered in various workshops and readings.
Karen Minnich oversees parent education at ECP. She acknowledges that “co-ops are a lot of work, but that hard work pays off. Research shows that parent involvement in a child’s education results in greater academic and school success.”
A classroom where adults and kids learn simultaneously requires an accomplished educator to guide it. Larson manages the task with aplomb. As parent Megan Lanese says, “Every child and parent in Norma’s classroom can feel her love and support. No matter what challenges arise, you always feel that she is on your side. She establishes boundaries for the children with unmatched compassion and respect.”
Lanese’s assessment is far from unique; when Larson announced her retirement at the end of this school year, it provoked a veritable tidal wave of appreciation. “Teacher Norma is calm and encouraging,” says parent Tiffany Leighty. “She gets involved in the heart of each child’s play. She inspires participation and exploration.”
Several parents mentioned appreciation for Larson’s approach to children’s artwork. Community member Carrie Bell characterized Larson’s philosophy thusly: “You can never use too much paint or glue; you just have to wait longer to bring it home.” According to Bell, this is “a perfect example of how she taught consequences with no judgment.”
Bell’s three children attended ECP from 2000 to 2007. Says Bell, “Teacher Norma was an absolute joy in our lives and her guidance was integral in how we parented. I most appreciated her patience with all the children and in particular my very active son. She always appreciated the children’s energy and never seemed to tire of it.”
Bell adds, “My oldest daughter is now a freshman at the University of Washington and still speaks highly of Norma.”
Fellow ECP teacher Brianne Winkelman has a similar story regarding Larson’s lasting impact. “She was my husband’s preschool teacher back in 1984 and he remembers her as the sweetest teacher he ever had. To go full circle and now be able to work with the legendary Teacher Norma feels like a dream. She has been my mentor, a friend, and a second mom.”
Though her teaching tenure at ECP is almost over, Larson plans to stay connected as a volunteer. She’s also committed to the school’s latest project of finding a new location for the 2015-2016 school year.
Having been through the moving process before, she’s unfailingly optimistic about the opportunities that change can bring. And co-op families, Larson notes, can meet any challenge. As an example, she reminisces about the year the school opened at a facility with no running water. Families simply brought filled containers to class until the plumbing was finished. “We always figure it out and we will again,” says Larson. ECP Board Chair Dana Kiehl concurs, adding, “The co-op experience is about community, which we will have no matter where we are.”
One thing’s for certain: even as Larson moves on to her next adventure, her legacy will remain. As Minnich notes, “Through her many years of teaching at Eastside Co-op Preschool, Teacher Norma has made the local co-op model what it is today. She is such a gift to the Olympia community.”
Hoping to attend Larson’s retirement party later this spring? Keep checking the preschool website for updates. Here, you can also learn about preschool registration or find out more about the Capital Campaign to support ECP’s upcoming move. Alternatively, you can call the school at 360-754-3938.
Eastside Cooperative Preschool’s 2015 open house will be held on March 14 from 10:00 a.m. to noon at ECP’s current location, a portable on the Margaret McKenny Elementary School campus. The address is 3250 Morse-Merryman Road SE.