Education News

Bristol preschool looking to buy land

AUGUSTUS AND OTHER students at the Wren’s Nest Forest Preschool in Bristol splash around in a puddle during the school day. The nature-based preschool is hoping to expand its offerings and relocate to a permanent site, with the support of a Community Recovery and Revitalization Program grant.  Photo courtesy of Tasha Ball/Willowell

BRISTOL — The Willowell Foundation has secured grant funding that will support a $1.4 million plan to relocate the organization’s Wren’s Nest Forest Preschool to a permanent home, while expanding the program’s capacity and addressing the need for more affordable workforce housing in the county. 

The foundation was one of four Addison County entities to receive funding through the first round of Community Recovery and Revitalization Program (CRRP) grants, and is set to receive $296,160 from the Agency of Commerce & Community Development. 

The funds will go toward the purchase of land for a new site for the Wren’s Nest program and the construction of a modest schoolhouse building for the preschool, which is currently renting space at Wild Roots Community Farm in Bristol. 

“The program is in its 11th year as a vibrant and really well-known and loved school, but we’ve had to move the program twice since 2012 and our most recent move was a direct result of the pandemic,” said Tasha Ball, Willowell administrative director. “Really, for the long-term sustainability of the program, we need our own facility.”  

The Wren’s Nest Forest Preschool is a licensed, nature-based program for children aged three to five years old. Learning at the preschool unfolds through interactions with the natural world and is centered around hands-on, evidence-based curriculum. 

PRESCHOOLER ZAHRA USES stones to help her count while learning outside at the Wren’s Nest Forest Preschool in Bristol. The preschool recently received a Community Recovery and Revitalization Program grant that will help the program move to a permanent location, expand its offerings and construct low-income workforce housing.  Photo courtesy of Tasha Ball/Willowell

Since the fall of 2021, Wren’s Nest has been located at the Wild Roots working farm and homestead. Ball said the preschool program feels it is now necessary to secure its own location, though Willowell’s partnership with the farm has been fruitful. 

“Wild Roots Community Farm has been incredibly gracious and welcoming to our program. We look forward to partnering with them in the future and we believe strongly in the work they are doing. They opened their home and property to Wren’s Nest when we needed to move two years ago, and it has been a really magical place to land the program,” she said. 

The foundation has identified a potential new site for Wren’s Nest just outside of the Bristol village area. Ball said Willowell has been in discussion with the landowners and hopes to purchase the property later this spring and begin constructing a schoolhouse on site shortly after. 


The project is also set to include the construction of a three-bedroom, low-income housing unit for AmeriCorps members. The Willowell Foundation has a 22- year history of working with AmeriCorps service members, and currently hosts four to five members through the Vermont Youth Development Corps program.

Two to three of the foundation’s AmeriCorps members serve at Wren’s Nest and assist with teaching, planning curriculum and supporting the program in a variety of other ways. Construction of the three-bedroom unit would allow the Willowell Foundation to house AmeriCorps members during their time working with Wren’s Nest. 

“They’re really a vital part of what we do, of our work. We bring place-based educators to Vermont from all around the country to work with us for a year or more,” Ball said. “In the last few years, they haven’t been able to find housing, and they’re really living on federal minimum wage.” 

Ball added the foundation sees a variety of advantages to investing in housing for its AmeriCorps members. 

“Offering low-income housing options to members will provide a multifaceted benefit: strengthening the workforce, training and mentoring new educators, attracting more young people to come to Vermont to work and live, all while simultaneously contributing to the success of high-quality, affordable childcare,” she said. 

The foundation is optimistic that moving Wren’s Nest to a permanent site will allow the program to add around three to five additional preschool slots. Ball said the preschool program is committed to reserving a portion of those new spots for low-to-moderate income families. 

Wren’s Nest is a Specialized Child Care provider, and low-income or struggling families are able to receive state subsidies to cover all or some of their tuition at Wren’s Nest. The Willowell Foundation also offers scholarships for the program and all of the foundation’s other offerings. 

WREN’S NEST PRESCHOOLER Jane collects leaves while outside at the Bristol program. The preschool recently received a state grant that will support its move to a new location and help the program expand its offerings. 
Photo courtesy of Tasha Ball/Willowell

“Wren’s Nest Preschool currently serves a handful of low-income families, and funds from this grant will allow us the long-term stability to reserve over 20% of our spots for low-to-moderate-income applicants,” Ball said. “It is our vision to offer this play-based, outdoor programming to any and every child in the region who wishes to attend.”

Foundation officials believe the project will also support the subsequent hiring of more teachers and offer more freedom to run additional summer programs. Ball said the seven camps Wren’s Nest is offering this upcoming summer filled up within a week and have long wait lists. 

“Having our own space will allow us to have less of an impact on (Wild Roots) working farm and their family and run programs through the entire summer and maybe even run more than one camp at a time. We’re finding that that is a huge need in Addison County, summer programming for this age range,” Ball said. 

The Willowell Foundation is now looking to tap into other funding sources to finance the project, which has an anticipated total cost of $1,480,800. The foundation has submitted a proposal for a portion of Bristol’s American Rescue Plan Act funds, and Ball said the organization is seeking additional funding opportunities. 

“We’re looking under every stone, leaving no stones unturned in terms of funding the full project,” she said. “We’re looking at other grant funding and are hoping to run a capital campaign, or some sort of donor campaign to meet some of the rest of the funding gap.” 

With CRRP funds secured to get the project rolling, the foundation hopes to purchase land for the preschool program later this spring and break ground on the project in the summer. Ball said ideally, Wren’s Nest would begin operating out of its new location in the fall of 2024. 

“I’m really excited to share outdoor education with more people and open it up to larger demographics, having more spots to get kids outdoors, muddy and living their best lives in the elements of Vermont,” she said. 

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