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Since 1933, the Nora Stewart Early Learning Center has focused on providing children equal opportunities for early childhood education to prepare for success in kindergarten. Amanda Estes founded the Negro Nursery School on Dec. 1, 1933, on Park Avenue to address an education gap for African-American children. This was the first nursery school in Columbia that allowed African-American children admittance at this time. When Estes opened the school, it was in a four-room house and served 16 children. Just one year later, the school had an enrollment of 35.
In the 1940s, Estes inherited a house on Ash Street from her foster mother, Nora Stewart. At the time, the Negro Nursery School had closed briefly due to lack of federal funding. Estes was working at the Douglass School and resigned to reopen the nursery school under the new name, the Nora Stewart Memorial Nursery School.
“She revived the school in 1948 with the help of Esther Loomis Griffin, who was an executive secretary of the social service society of Columbia,” says Cheryl Howard, executive director of the Nora Stewart Early Learning Center.
The school has resided at 505 E. Ash St. ever since. The Community Chest, now known as the United Way, was a big supporter of the project and a major contributor to the success of the school. “The building we are housed in now was a total community effort with the community working together,” Howard says.
Estes served as director of the nursery school from 1948 to 1965. When she retired, Mary Jane Davis assumed the role of director and served in that capacity until 2006. Cheryl Howard became director at this time. Howard holds a Master of Education in counseling from Stephens College.
“In the long history that it’s had, we’ve only had three directors,” Howard says. “Ms. Estes and Ms. Davis were also my teachers because I attended here as a little girl.”
Since 2008, the school has been known as the Nora Stewart Early Learning Center. Under Howard’s leadership, the school opened the infant care center in 2010. This allows the school to serve 50 students, ages 6 weeks to 8 years.
“At this time, it’s a very diverse community, and it will continue to be very diverse,” Howard says. The main mission of the school is to provide education that is safe and nurturing to allow all children the opportunity to succeed when they enter kindergarten. The licensed facility also includes before and after care and promotes improvement in education and family life.
“One thing I always emphasize on is that Nora Stewart is open to all children,” Howard says. “And our main goal is to have all children who attend Nora Stewart prepared to succeed and enter Columbia Public Schools successfully.”
Tuition is determined by a sliding-fee scale based on household income, and students are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. Lead teachers must hold a CDA or a four-year college degree. To prepare students for success when entering the public school system, a large emphasis is placed on continued education and training for the teachers.
The curriculum, known as HighScope, focuses on proper nutrition, reading, math and other critical skills. Emphasis is placed on child-centered learning and utilizes a process known as active participatory learning. The school also works closely with Jump Start, which is a national organization with a local chapter at the University of Missouri. Jump Start works with early language and literacy to help children in America be prepared to succeed in school.
Several community organizations partner with the Nora Stewart Early Learning Center through volunteerism, donations, and funding: United Way, one of the biggest contributors, both financially and educationally; Minority Men Network reads and interacts with the children and provides a diverse, positive group of male role models; Kiwanis, which has supported the school for more than 20 years through volunteerism; Kilgore Pharmacy, which donated property for a community garden where the school gets most of its vegetables and fruit; Foster Grandparents, who work in the center five days a week providing support and comfort to the children; YMCA college students who interact with the children through a group organized by MU; Project Launch, a group organized through MU that works with social and emotional readiness for students and helps with teacher training required for licensing; and Strive, which works to provide equal opportunities for all children when entering the public school system, with a focus on equity and community systems change.
Nora Stewart Early Learning Center is a nonprofit that is funded by United Way contributions, fundraising efforts and grant opportunities. The USDA provides meals to those students who qualify.
The school is governed by a board that oversees the director and the operation of the school. The general expectations of a board member are to be knowledgeable about the organization, serve in a leadership position, collaborate with the director, recruit possible board members and participate in board meetings. The board is always looking for community members with diverse experiences to serve. Current board members include: Dr. Mable Grimes, Dr. NaTashua Davis, Pamela Nunnelly, Amanda Atkins and Sherry Waddill.
“I suppose the connection to the longtime history in the community, how it started, who it serves, and it just seems to me to be an important element of Columbia,” Grimes says on the value she places in the organization. “I hope people get to see the jewel they have in the community and that they support it.”
Grimes is a current board member and past board president who has served on the board for more than 10 years. She’s volunteered with Nora Stewart since her undergraduate years at MU with her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, in the early 1960s.