Children’s school celebrates 30 years in Ennis

Ennis Community Children's School kids gather in the playground at the school around their teachers, ECCS executive director Sara Racine and teacher Regan Goettle. Photo by Gerry Mooney.

Thirty years ago, a young Josh Vujovich was one of the first students at the Ennis Nursery School. Today his son Hutchins is one of more than 20 local kids who attend what has become the Ennis Community Children’s School.

For Vujovich it’s the beginning of what his mother and father, Stephanie and Joe, experienced when Josh was a child.

Hutch is the third generation, on his grandmother’s side, born in Ennis. While Josh had the same teachers in school that his mom and dad did, Hutch is now attending the children’s school his grandmother help start.

“I guess I never thought ‘Will it last this long?’ but I’m happy it did,” Stephanie said Tuesday.

Thirty years ago she found herself in a similar position to many mothers – she had a young child but still needed to work. She teamed up with Vicki Lubke and Nancy Griffin, who both also had young children, and came up with an idea for a preschool-type cooperative where kids were introduced to organized education along with a healthy social atmosphere.

“We all had kids the same age and we were trying to get together and have play dates all the time, plus we had jobs, so we thought it might be a good thing to get going,” Stephanie said.

The group got a $200 donation from the Madison Valley Woman’s Club and rented a small house in downtown Ennis; hired a teacher and a teacher’s aid.

“We did it as a co-op to begin with, so to have your child there you had to work so many hours a week,” she said. “It was kind of a bootstrap thing to get it all going.”

The first teacher was Patsy Fitzpatrick from Virginia City and the first teacher’s aid was Holly Clark.

When they opened, the school had nearly a dozen kids within the first week, Vujovich said.

“I always thought there was a real need for it,” she said. “Life was changing and more and more women were working and just the need for kids being together and having play time – educational playtime, not just babysitting. It was important for us to find a teacher, not just a babysitter.”

And though there was an obvious need in the community for the nursery school, it wasn’t easy to keep going, Vujovich said. There were months when the organizers had to reach into their own pockets for the teacher’s salaries. The toys from the school were borrowed from a toy lending library that existed in Butte.

Parents would go over to Butte every two weeks to drop off and pick up a load of toys for the school. The toys were all in great shape, and many were handmade, she said.

But kids continued to enroll and the school kept going.

Eventually the school became a nonprofit organization and changed its name to the Ennis Community Children’s School. Now located near the Ennis Schools, the core idea it was founded on remains – providing young children with a structured and safe learning environment along with a fun social setting.

The need is also still there in the community, said current ECCS board president Christine Kern.

“The need’s even grown exponentially these days when even more kids have both parents working,” she said.

Like when the school first opened, the staff either has teaching experience or education, Kern said. Currently the school employees three regular employees, including executive director Sara Racine.

The school is open more than just during the school day and provides after school programs for children who are in elementary school, she said.

And like 30 years ago, the school depends on the support of the community. While most of the operating funds come from the tuition charged to the 38 families who are enrolled, the school also holds two major fundraisers each year – a golf tournament in the spring and a gun raffle at the Ennis Hunter’s Feed, which will be held this Friday.

“Those two events have been really successful for us,” Kern said.

The longevity of the school is a special accomplishment, she said and shows the need for their services in the Ennis community.

“The board and staff are really, really grateful to be in a community that is so supportive of a nonprofit preschool,” she said.

Look for ECCS parents and volunteers at the Ennis Hunter’s Feed, which will be 3 to 5 p.m. this Friday on Main Street in Ennis. The raffle tickets for the gun are $5 a piece and the drawing will be held Friday night at the Gravel Bar.

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