Education News

Wren’s Nest Preschool build progresses

THE WILLOWELL FOUNDATION is making progress on efforts to relocate the Wren’s Nest Forest Preschool to a new, permanent location in Bristol. Work on a modest schoolhouse at the site began in January and is expected to wrap up next month.  Photo courtesy of Tasha Ball

BRISTOL — The Willowell Foundation is making headway on efforts to relocate the organization’s Wren’s Nest Forest Preschool to a new, permanent home. 

The foundation has purchased land on Bristol’s Harvey Road and begun building a modest schoolhouse on the new preschool property that’s expected to be completed next month. 

Willowell Administrative Director Tasha Ball said Wren’s Nest plans to begin operating at the new site this fall. 

The property is just a stone’s throw from Wren’s Nest’s current site at Wild Roots Community Farm. The preschool has been renting space at the farm and homestead since the fall of 2021. 

Wren’s Nest has moved three times in 12 years of operating as a licensed preschool. 

“These moves were costly, time consuming, and demanded an extraordinary amount of energy,” Ball said. “Although all of our community partners who have hosted the preschool over the years (Common Ground Center, Treleven Farm and now Wild Roots Farm) have been gracious and incredibly supportive landlords, the long-term sustainability of the program depends on us having our own location.”

Securing its own space will allow the program to lay down roots and focus on what it does best, Ball said. 

“Not having the overhead of monthly rent will allow us to invest the little we make in this profession into our educators and the families we serve,” she said. 

The Wren’s Nest Forest Preschool is a licensed, nature-based program for preschool-age children. Learning at the preschool unfolds through explorations of the natural world with guidance from trained, outdoor educators and incorporates themes rooted in the surrounding environment. 

Plans to secure a permanent home for the preschool gained momentum last year when the foundation was one of four Addison County entities to receive funding through the first round of Community Recovery and Revitalization Program grants through the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. 

Willowell also received a portion of Bristol’s American Rescue Plan Act funds to put toward the effort. 

Ball said that funding allowed the foundation to launch the multi-faceted project, which includes the preschool construction and,  eventually, low-income housing for AmeriCorps service members. 

“The plan is to complete the preschool build this summer for a fall start date in our new location,” Ball explained. “Once the preschool is complete, we hope to assess the feasibility of the second phase to build the AmeriCorps intern low-income housing.” 

The foundation had originally proposed construction of a three-bedroom housing unit, but is now considering two tiny houses or yurts with a shared bath and kitchen house. 

“The housing portion is very much still in our plans, but will be contingent on land surveys and permitting issues in question, as well as meeting our fundraising goals,” Ball said. 

PRESCHOOL GOING UP 

Wren’s Nest’s new site is located on the northern-most lot of a new, 13-lot development in the works off Harvey Road. 

“The new property is 2.5 acres of beautiful meadow, stream, and hardwood forest, situated eight minutes south of Bristol village,” Ball said. “Building lots will be available to purchase soon and we hope they fill with young families and people who appreciate nature-based education. Our lot is adjacent to a large field of common land that looks over a wetland, meadow, and Route 116 near Sycamore Park.” 

The team broke ground on a 1,200-square-foot preschool building at the end of January, which is expected to be completed in early July. Bristol’s Development Review Board is set to hold a second hearing later this month on the foundation’s request for a conditional use permit for the educational facility. 

“We have pursued such an aggressive timeline so we could start school there at the end of August without a gap in programming for our currently enrolled families,” Ball said. 

Lincoln contractor Thomas Building & Design has tackled construction of the schoolhouse. 

“Folks couldn’t quite believe we’d have it done this quickly, but Thomas Building & Design has been working hard to meet the deadlines and we seem to be on track,” Ball said. “Aaron Thomas has been wonderful to work with and understands the mission and vision of this project.” 

Ball said the bones of the building were designed by Andy White of Boreal Design in collaboration with Thomas Building & Design, the Wren’s Nest teaching team and Ball. The finished barn-like structure will feature a large wrap-around porch with cubbies, a sink, and access to bathrooms from the exterior wall so the preschool can operate fully outdoors for 90% of the school year. 

“As an outdoor preschool we wanted something really practical, but also sustainable and beautiful,” Ball said. “The porch will provide us with a safe usable space for the many months Wren’s Nest is fully outdoors from pick up to drop off. The building is sited right up against the woods where we plan to start stewarding and shaping our outdoor classroom with stump circles, fire pits, and walking paths.” 

The new location will allow Wren’s Nest to increase its capacity from 15 to 18 children per day. 

Ball said the team also plans to expand summer programming. 

“The Wren’s Nest Explorer camps for ages 4-6 are incredibly popular and we can’t wait to open our doors to an even wider demographic of young folks who love to play and get dirty in the great outdoors,” Ball said. “With the new site, we also plan to hold 20% of our spots for low- to moderate-income families.”

The team sees the new location and facility as a community hub where fellow educators, community partners can come for classes, workshops and gatherings. 

“The long-term vision of the Willowell board and staff is to become an educational hub, where AmeriCorps members and new teachers can come to learn and practice skills in the forest school pedagogy,” she said. “Jess Curto is the new director at Wren’s Nest this year, and she comes to us with a strong background in forest preschool education and a passion for the work.” 

Attracting educators to the site is also a goal of the second, housing phase of the project. 

YOUNG EDUCATORS

“We see the melding of AmeriCorps intern housing with the expansion of the preschool as a pivotal point in the program’s evolution,” Ball said. “We hope it will allow us to bring young and energetic aspiring teachers from out of state to train, learn, and possibly stay.” 

The Willowell Foundation has a 24-year history of working with AmeriCorps service members, a portion of whom work with Wren’s Nest. 

“Many of (the AmeriCorps members) have stayed — got teaching licenses or found other creative ways to contribute to the workforce and vibrancy of our local communities,” Ball said. 

The entire project, including AmeriCorps housing and the new schoolhouse, is expected to cost around $1.5 million. The foundation has yet to secure funds beyond the CRR grant and ARPA funds, though Ball noted the team is always on the hunt for new funding opportunities. 

“We feel this project hits on so many of Vermont’s highest priorities right now — such as accessibility to high-quality childcare, housing and workforce development — that we will continue to apply for grants and donors,” she said. 

The team is also looking into options for loans and larger fundraising opportunities. 

“We hope to get help from our local community. Wren’s Nest has been in operation now for a little over a decade, and has a strong following of alumni and champions of the work we do,” Ball said. 

In the meantime, the Wren’s Nest team is looking forward to beginning this next chapter in its new home. 

“Throughout the program’s history, the children have created a sort of mythology around each site, with names of special spots in the woods or along streams. At Treleven Farm we had ‘Azbons Bridge,’ at Wild Roots we had ‘the summer river’ and the ‘Monkey vine,’” Ball recalled. “These beloved places are named and discovered by the students and become the classrooms filled with lore and respect for the land. We can’t wait to see what this new property holds. What rocks or bends in the stream will the students take to and how will we inhabit this new tract of land?”

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