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Apple Red Happiness: Randolph College Nursery School celebrates 80th anniversary

Randolph College Nursery School teacher Wendy McFaden kneels in the rubber mulch, getting eye-to-eye with one of her students on the playground. Nearby, classmates play in the sand, while others climb the small hill that sits next to the school’s entrance.

It’s a day like any other, but the scene offers a glimpse of what the school, celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, has always prided itself on: A curriculum centered around play-based learning in a small, intimate setting.

“They learn from play,” said Director Jennie Munson, whose background in education spans 40 years, including 17 spent teaching abroad. “We emphasize social-emotional learning as well as literacy, math, and other subjects, all within an environment of play. Our kids leave here with a strong foundation for kindergarten, and that’s our goal.”

And they do it with lots of one-on-one time with teachers like McFaden, who has been at the Nursery School for 13 years.

“There’s a lot of research that shows the high value of student-teacher interaction, having another adult in their life listening to them, talking to them, reading and writing with them,” Munson said. “There’s very little you can do to replace that.”

The school has long been a leader in quality childcare in the region, with small class sizes, experienced teachers, and a hands-on curriculum.
“Teachers who have magic are such a gift, and I feel like they have magic at Randolph,” said Tasha Gillum, whose son, Van, is enrolled in the Nursery School’s Master’s Class for 4 and 5 year olds this year.

He had previously attended a Montessori school, following in the footsteps of his older sister.

“He’s a little bit older, with a June birthday, and we weren’t ready to send him to kindergarten yet,” Tasha Gillum said. “Randolph was really a place where he arrived on his own and had to make his own place for himself. We wanted him to have a special year, and it has been just such a gift.”

The transition was rocky at first, but Gillum saw a change during the Nursery School’s 1/10th miler run—timed to coincide with the annual Virginia 10 Miler Race—in September.

“It was just so sweet to see him championed by his teachers and his friends and I think, after that, he realized he had community there,” Gillum said. “This loving, caring environment is cultivated for the students. They let go of your hand without looking back.”

And, now, he’s ready for that next step.

“He’s going to arrive in kindergarten eager and confident in his ability to learn,” Gillum said.

The Nursery School was established in 1943 for campus families, as well as the community. It opened that September with a group of six children, between the ages of 3 and 4, and soon expanded, as spots became highly sought after among parents with young children.

In 2013, it became one of just 31 providers statewide to receive a four-star rating from the Virginia Star Quality Initiative, a voluntary quality rating and improvement system for early learning programs. At the time, the four-star rating was the highest that had been given.

A short time later, in 2015, the Nursery School became the fourth program in the state, and the first in the region, to earn a 5-star rating from the group.

Today, the school serves children between the ages of 3 and 5, and offers full or half-day attendance options.

Students typically spend from one to two hours outside a day, and not just on the playground directly outside the school.  

“The entire campus is their playground, really,” Munson said. “They go over to the labyrinth or see the chickens in the Organic Garden. There are so many different possibilities for our students.”

Holly Clapper, another Nursery School parent, also talked fondly about her son’s experiences on campus, from scavenger hunts to gardening.

“It’s like they get to take mini field trips every day,” she said.

Her son, Eli, especially loves his “College friends”—Randolph students who are a frequent presence at the Nursery School through work study programs and education practicums.

Gillum echoed the sentiment.

“My son really sees them as his teachers, but also knows they’re young adults,” she said. “What I have really appreciated is when we see them in the community. I think it’s joyful for him to feel like he’s known in other places. He really does feel like he is a Randolph College student and it’s his
college, his school.”

The Randolph College Nursery School will be hosting an 80th birthday bash from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, May 7, featuring face painting, Balloon Dude Travis, a photo booth, and more. Find out  more at


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