Nyack Sketch Log: Nyack’s Little Schoolhouse

by Bill Batson

Angie Sampath gives new meaning to the term “working from home.” As head teacher of Nyack’s Little Schoolhouse daycare program, she works in the building where she grew up and attended pre-school.

Her mother, Christa, started the day care center in their home 25 years ago. Having just moved from New York City, Christa wanted to find an ideal nursery school for her daughter. When she failed to find a school that met her expectations, she decided to open her own nursery school with her daughter and four other children.

Nyack’s Little Schoolhouse has grown into a respected early childhood development center and is operated from two adjacent houses on Lawrence Street in Nyack. One house, where Angie was raised, is called Christa Care and is dedicated to work with toddlers ages 18 months to three years. Children ages three to five are taught in the house next door.

In 1990, an elderly neighbor who was about to move into assisted living suggested the Sampath’s buy her house to expand their school. Ethel Begbie is remembered as a grandmother figure who was always serving home made cookies. Ethel can be seen in a photo from the school’s website, taken one Halloween. Angie is in the princess dress and parka, posing with the other local children who formed the inaugural class of what would become Nyack’s Little Schoolhouse.

If a Hollywood location scout were asked to find a fairy tale set in Nyack, they would pick the Little Schoolhouse. From the road, the building looks like a ginger bread house. A collection of bird and doll houses that surround the structure throw-off your sense of scale and proportion, producing an Alice-Through-The-Looking-Glass effect.

When you enter the classroom, your eyes are drawn to a bamboo patch, visible from a row of windows. Walking out onto the balcony and looking down onto the toy-strewn backyard, you feel like you’re in a Swiss Family Robinson style tropical tree house.

The themes of play and nature that echo in the design and decoration of the building are at the center of Christa Sampath’s approach to early childhood education. Her teaching philosophy is drawn from her own childhood in Cologne, Germany and a mixture of progressive pedagogies including Regio Emilia, Waldorf, Montessori and HighScope . Christa incorporates German language lessons and folk rituals like lantern walks into the curriculum. But ultimately, it was not the absence of European language or cultural traditions that inspired Christa to open the Little Schoolhouse.

Christa was reluctant to send Angie to a typical American nursery school because she felt that the emphasis was too academic, at the expense of personal and social development. Christa believed that a combination of free and structured play promotes the development of physical, mental and social skills.

“I tell my parents that at this early age, their children don’t need academic pressure.” Christa told me recently, “Children need to spend as much time as they can playing outside, digging in the dirt, and looking for shapes in the sky. They need to build a treasure chest of memories that they can return to later in life,” she continued.

One cannot avoid pointing at Angie Sampath as a stunning example of her mother’s success. Angie has grown from a student to a teacher through her mother’s early childhood education program. After graduating from New York University with a dual major in elementary and special education, Angie spent a few years in California where she worked as a teacher. But the buried treasure of the memories created by her mother at the Little Schoolhouse brought her back to Nyack.

Angie enjoys the special relationship she has with her mother as her former teacher and current boss. “I have to say we are like best friends.” She assured me. “She gives me the freedom to form lesson plans but she is also there when I struggle and need help. I feel like we make a great team.”

Parents seem to agree. Decades after the doors opened, mother and daughter work side-by-side running an early childhood education program so popular it always has a waiting list from word of mouth alone. The Sampaths never advertise.

Recently, Christa has started giving Angie more administrative responsibilities. Despite these new pressures and the ten-hour days, Angie’s manner is unhurried and casual. There is playfulness in her voice that must be the side effect from growing up in a cloud of children’s laughter. Having spent most of her life in a nursery school, no matter how difficult the work might seem to an outsider, for Angie Sampath, it’s child’s play.

Nyack’s Little Schoolhouse Early Childhood Development Center is accredited by the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs and licensed by the New York State Office of Children and Families Services. Contact Christa and Angie Sampath for more information at (845) 358-5836 or info@nyackslittleschoolhouse.com

 Nyack Sketch Log: Nyack’s Little Schoolhouse” ©2012, Bill Batson.

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