MADISON — Keeping play in early childhood education has been a passion for Bernadette Stak and as she retires after 24 years as director of Temple Beth Tikvah Nursery School she leaves with pride that she stayed the course.
“There were a lot of trends that came down the pike,” she said. “I still remember, years back, the whole academic piece. ‘Let’s get them ready to learn’ and people took that to mean let’s get the ABCs and the reading and writing, let’s get a leg up in preschool.
“And I was like, ‘This is absolutely inappropriate and we’re not going to do that.’
“Then technology came along and people were saying, ‘Let’s get more technology in their hands.’ I never felt like the screen was going to be a substitute for human interaction and I certainly have never felt that the keyboard was going to substitute for fine motor skills.”
On June 2, Stak welcomed children to the nursery school for the last time, leaving behind a myriad of memories for herself and the children, parents, families and staff that she interacted with over the years.
“Oh, my goodness,” said Temple Beth Tikvah Rabbi Stacy Offner. “Well, 24 years says so much.”
“She’s the preschool director, but she knows a lot about every age and stage. She’s touched a lot of lives,” she said.
For the parents, Stak has been much more than a director.
“Bernadette is a mentor, not only as an educator, but even as a mother, just with her wisdom and her advice and the love she gives to all the children,” said Christie Williams-Kahn whose 4 ½-year-old daughter, Aeva Kahn, was enrolled in the pre-kindergarten program.
“It’s the most nurturing, comforting environment,” Williams-Kahn said.
“What’s going on in the classroom, they make learning so much fun,” she said. “It’s play-based, it’s incredibly creative.”
Stak earned her bachelor and graduate degrees in early childhood education from Southern Connecticut State University.
Prior to joining Temple Beth Tikvah she worked at the North Branford Family Resource Center as a parent educator and was also director of the Neighborhood Music School Nursery School while her now grown sons attended the school.
As she talked, before the end of the school year, she reminisced about how wonderful her years at TBT nursery school here.
“It was a good fit for me,” Stak said. “I was given the freedom to create curriculum and it’s been my passion, so I could maintain my truth about socially-based, play-based curriculum.”
Offner said that Stak’s love for every child who walked through the door was very evident.
“Every day she begins the day waiting to greet them and see them come into our TBT nursery school world,” she said. “It’s with love.”
Stak is incredibly proud of the large playground area, complete with a music wall, signage so that the children can recognize letters and a garden, in addition to slides, sandboxes, climbing structures and room for running.
Money for the improvements, over the years, came from a fund created by the now deceased Mary Blank and Stak worked with Fairfield County Environmental Designer Frederick A. Martin to create a space that appeals to the many different learners, including kinesthetic, musical and verbal.
Keeping TBT play-based was extremely important to Stak.
“I think that idea of the word ‘play’ for most adults, the connotation is that it’s not work, it’s lackadaisical, it’s too enjoyable, it doesn’t equate with the word learn.
“But to the 3 to 5-year-old, play is their learning,” she said. “Their toys are their tools, for that learning.
“They need to be able to play. They need to have social interactions, experiences so that they can make sense of the world through that. That’s their world. We, as grownups, trying to impart what we think is important on them is just not going to work.”
Offner said Stak’s commitment to this model will be her legacy.
“That it’s play based makes it unique and that’s her achievement,” she said. “The temple is committed to continuing that because it’s been such a successful model.”
Stak gets excited talking about what the nursery school classrooms offer to the students, including block corners; dramatic play corners, complete with dress up choices, jewelry and uniforms.
“The block corner is hugely important for early mathematic and engineering,” she said, passionately. “There’s always the social piece, because there’s teamwork and collaboration and cooperation and language and vocabulary.”
She credits very engaged parents for the much of the success at the school.
“We drew families that appreciated what we were doing there,” she said. “I think they loved the creativity, we also did a great deal with the arts, that was always really important to me. So, music and art, reading really good literature, everything had to be quality.”
For Guilford’s Jill Russo, a former parent and educator at TBT, Stak was a mentor in many ways.
“She just had a demeanor about her that was so helpful to me,” Russo said. “I just remember being a first time parent and being a nervous nelly. I didn’t know what to expect, I read all the books and things weren’t happening like the books said.
“So, she was always a calming source in my life, those early days,” Russo said.
In addition to the title of director, Stak was a constant fixture in the classrooms. At almost 6 feet tall, Stak could often found getting down to the students’ level by sitting in the small, preschool chair.
“That is fascinating, what a great awareness,” Offner said. “They love her.”
After spending some quality time in the classrooms, toward the end of this school year, Stak’s love of teaching was reignited.
“I’ve been having a ball, because I’ve had to fill in,” she said. “I’ve been helping out and I’ve been absolutely loving it, so while I’m retiring from the directorship of a nursery school I won’t be surprised if somebody found me in a preschool classroom.”
At 60 years old, she still feels young, in large part to the children that she has surrounded herself with over the last 24 years.
“You have to have the energy to keep up with them,” she said. “You have to have physical and mental stamina to keep up with them and again, I’m saying this to do it right. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Williams-Kahn appreciates this side of Stak.
“She’ll actually get down on their level and shake their hands and she’s just such a warm, welcoming, mother of the school,” she said.
Russo echoes this.
“Bernadette has this innate ability to really know kids,” she said. “No matter what group of kids came through the school, she knew every single one of those kids’ names, immediately.”
Being physically located in a synagogue, the nursery school observes all Jewish holidays including Purim, Passover, Yom Kippur and Hanukkah. Offner said families of all faiths attended and the children enjoyed the celebrations.
“They love it, they love it and the parents love it,” Offner said. “The parents who are not Jewish, who have never been to a Passover Seder, the nursery school Seder is a real Seder and the education component is great for not just the children, but for adults, as well.”
Stak talks about working hard to create a loving, caring, nurturing space for the young children were under her wing.
“I’ve been able to just create what I think has been a really beautiful environment for the 2 to 5 years old,” she said.
“If we weren’t enriching their lives, their creativity, their art, I really would not be able to live with myself, as an educator, if I wasn’t doing it correctly,” she said.
She talks about what she hopes her legacy will be.
“I hope, truly, that the children coming to Temple Beth Tikvah Nursery School for years to come will have that opportunity to have that joy of learning, feel the love from those halls and the people within them and the sense of self and self confidence when they leave there and go to kindergarten. I hope that goes on for a very, very long time.”