The campus of the First Unitarian Church is a bustling place on weekends, particularly on Sundays, when adults attend services in the chapel and youngsters fill the Religious Education classrooms. But on the weekdays, the place is dominated by the energetic sounds of little children.
They are the two-, three-, and four-year-old students of the Community Cooperative Nursery School, a private, non-profit, parent-governed school that has been operating on the Unitarian campus for more than half a century. About 80 to 100 children attend the school each year. And while it is not necessary, or even likely, that they be children of Unitarians, the school was certainly Unitarian-based at its opening in 1962.
The acknowledged founder of CCNS was Janet Gillilan, who moved to Salt Lake City in 1961 with her husband Hugh when he was named First Church’s new minister, succeeding Harold Scott. But, ironically, Janet had gotten absorbed in Unitarian-style early education before she ever landed in Utah.
In the late 1950s, Hugh was a Methodist minister in Parma, Ohio, where he had a seminary project assignment to study a non-Methodist curriculum. He chose to study the Unitarian curriculum, and through that project, Janet was introduced to the children’s books written by Unitarian educator Sophia Fahs.
Although not a Unitarian at the time, Fahs was hired in 1937 by the American Unitarian Association to help revive the church’s religious education program. She authored a series of books called The New Beacon Series — presumably the books that fell into Janet Gillilan’s hands in the late 1950s — which fostered learning through one’s own experiences. Janet decided, “That’s the kind of information we wanted to impart to our children.”
So, when Janet came to Salt Lake City with two little children, she already had an idea of how she wanted to teach them. Upon arrival, she fortuitously discovered a place to teach them: the minister’s residence at 1317 East 600 South, right next door to the church. The Gillilans did not want to live there, and when Harold Scott told Janet that the minister’s wife was expected to host and prepare lunch for a handful of Unitarian women after Sunday services, she really didn’t want to live there.
So, the old parsonage was renamed the “Annex,” and naturally enough, it became a home for the new nursery school. On May 21, 1962, according to The Torch, the church’s Board of Trustees approved “the Unitarian cooperative nursery school to use the annex and church building three mornings a week beginning next September. Priority in the nursery school will be given to Unitarian children.”
Thus was born the Unitarian Cooperative Nursery School. It opened its doors to the children on Sept. 17, 1962. Its first teachers were Nancy Neale, from the Jewish Community Center, and Helen Read, from the University of Utah nursery school. And the focus of the school was on Janet Gillilan’s watchword: readiness.
According to the CCNS website, “readiness,” as Gillilan meant it, “stresses broad-based experiences and new encounters upon which new abilities can be built. It focuses on exposure to diverse art projects and stories, different people, novel social situations, and enriching field trips.”
As the UNCS soon morphed into CCNS, signifying its reach to a wider community, the emphasis on experiential learning remained the same through the years. And the CCNS philosophy can be passed on with consistency because there has been little turnover in the dedicated teaching staff.
“The average tenure of pre-school teachers is six months,” said Stephanie Waldo, the school’s longest-serving teacher. “I’ve been here since 1986.”
Her long-time colleague, Terry Crandall, has been at CCNS since 1988. And before them, the late Susan Dowell had been there for 30 years and the late Ann Sutton for 18. Waldo explained, ”There’s less burnout here. It’s a community for us too.”
Before coming to CCNS, Waldo had worked at the Children’s Center with the late Agi Plenk, whom she credits with being her mentor. Plenk, a long-time Unitarian, was the founder of the Children’s Center, which provides mental health care to children.
At CCNS, Waldo says, “We still do play therapy here. We teach social skills. Our school is different. We don’t do academics. . . . We want our kids to be problem- solvers.”
When Waldo came to CCNS, the school still had classes in the old annex building, as well as on the second floor of the “old” Eliot Hall. But shortly after her arrival, the church embarked on its Centennial Campaign, which eventually resulted in the construction of a new Religious Education building. The project required that the annex building be torn down, which raised the question of whether CCNS could stay on- site for the 1991-92 year while the construction would be taking place.
But, on May 30, 1991, Erin Bowers, a co-chair of the CCNS board at the time, wrote to the church’s board president and informed him that CCNS would stay put for the next school year and that it would continue to raise funds for the playground that “we have agreed to contribute in appreciation for our near 30-year relationship with the Unitarian Church.”
Not only did CCNS survive that school year on-site — “We did all our classes upstairs (in Eliot Hall), and it worked out just fine,” said Waldo — but it also succeeded in gifting the new playground to the church. And, of course, with the new R.E. building, it ended up with brand new classrooms and the ability to keep the school entirely on the ground floor.
Two decades later, when the church launched another campus expansion project called the Legacy Campaign, there was again concern on the part of CCNS directors that, amidst the turmoil of construction, the school may be better off finding another location. But, again, it stayed put.
Waldo was glad they did. In fact, when CCNS directors, who are paying $25,000 in rent to the church in its 2019-20 fiscal year, have made periodic noises about relocating, she has had a ready response: “I said, ‘Go out and look. You won’t find anywhere better.’” In other words, there’s no place like home, the only home CCNS has known for more than 50 years.