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Book Fair has long supported center for all children

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 21, 2009 - Past a poster of paint-covered hand prints, down a long hall filled with cubbies and coats, a classroom of 2-year-olds stands waiting.

"Are we ready," Cherita Rackley sings, clapping her hands twice and getting their attention, "are we ready," clap, clap, "are we ready to go outside?"

With coats on and hoods up, they are ready.

"Let's line up," clap, clap, "let's line up," clap, clap, "let's line up to go outside."

A bumpy line forms.

"To the door," clap, clap.

The door opens letting in the chilly morning. Soon, the toddlers climb and slide and smile on the playground.

Most of the 112 kids at the Nursery Foundation of St. Louis know little about the place they come to each day.

But many of the grownups here know the story of how a local woman started an integrated nursery in the city more than 60 years ago, how her friend started a book fair to help fund it, and how both institutions still thrive today.

Then

Large photos from the past hang in Terri Olack's crowded office - a young woman reading to a group of black and white children, an older woman smiling next to one boy and two little girls.

In both pictures, it's the same woman, Frances "Queenie" Schiele, who founded the Nursery Foundation in the late 1940s along with Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman and other friends from Temple Israel.

Schiele wanted to form an integrated nursery in the city, and when she established it, the Nursery Foundation of St. Louis was the first of its kind.

Shortly after starting, Schiele needed funding to keep the doors open, and St. Louis philanthropist Evelyn Newman had an idea - a book fair with proceeds to benefit the Nursery Foundation.

In 1950, she chaired the first ever Greater St. Louis Book Fair. According to records, the money would go to benefit the 48 children who attended the school, with 100 on the waiting list.

That year, they earned $2,500.

Last year, they netted $250,000, according to chairperson Kathy Roth.

"They were so devoted to it back then and (made) sure that things continued for years to come," Olack says. "I think that this made a huge difference."

Now

The Nursery Foundation sits on North Euclid, behind a big fence, with the bright colors from the new playground leaping out against residential brick.

Proceeds from the Greater St. Louis Book Fair also go to the following organizations

  • ACCESS Academies - Succeeding with Reading Program
  • Center for Hearing & Speech - Speech-Language Program
  • First Book - St. Louis
  • Webster University - Student Literacy Corps
  • Cardinal Ritter Senior Services - Foster Grandparent Program
  •  Grace Hill Settlement House - EdVenture Readers
  • Lift for Life Academy - Book Battle
  •  Ready Readers
  • St. Louis Arc - Next Chapter Book Clubs
  •  St. Patrick Center - BEGIN Training and Education Center Program
  • The Little Bit Foundation - Books and Buddies and Book Fair

The center offers education and care to children primarily in the city, ages 1 to 5. Today, the majority are black. Cost is based on a sliding scale depending on the family and their economic situation, from $5 to $160 a week. About 6 percent of the foundation's funding comes from the book fair, with the rest coming from the United Way, Head Start, the Division of Family Services and private grants and donations.

The center uses Creative Curriculum, which is nationally recognized, and nearly all of the teachers have associate or bachelor's degrees, Olack says, or are working toward them.

For the children here, the focus is basic - building social skills. By the time they're ready to go to kindergarten, they should have skills such as how to sit still and listen to a story, how to line up and how to follow directions.

"Because if they can't do it now, they are not gonna be able to learn when they get to public school," Olack says.

After being in the community for more than 60 years, the Nursery Foundation has also become a part of many families, too, including Priscilla Parker's. Years ago, she sent her two sons here.

"It's almost like a family generation type thing," she says.

Now, Parker teaches 4 and 5-year-olds, and she watches over a table full of children as they concentrate on writing the letter "e" in a place that was conceived by one woman and made possible by a community.

The building's different, the kids are new, but the vision's the same.

"Ms. Parker," one boy says, a page full of orange lines in front of him, "I did it."

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