Whitefield is now home to the science-oriented Sheepscot Valley Hinterland Preschool, run by two experienced public school educators.
After a year of work and years of thinking about opening their own preschool, Melissa Vallieres and Brandi Grady, both of Whitefield, opened Hinterland on Monday, Oct. 15.
“We believe that there are different approaches to engaging kids in learning and literacy. We just happen to believe it’s through science,” Vallieres said.
“It’s a philosophy that Brandi and I have that we’ve learned,” Vallieres said. “We’ve actually experienced teaching everything through science and bringing all the other subjects into it.”
Vallieres has 18 years of experience in education, mostly as a preschool and kindergarten teacher.
For five years, she was the director of Clover Preschool, part of the Clover Health Care system in Auburn. Children interact with elderly “grandfriends” in the intergenerational program.
She has worked as a teacher at Chelsea Elementary School, Walton Elementary School in Auburn, and a Montessori school in Florida.
She graduated from the University of Maine at Orono with a degree in elementary education and a minor in English.
Grady has 10 years of experience teaching preschool and kindergarten. She too worked at Chelsea Elementary School, as well as Lillian Parks Hussey Elementary School and Lincoln Elementary School, both in Augusta.
She graduated from the University of Maine at Farmington with a degree in education and a concentration in mathematics.
Both received their master’s degrees in education from Thomas College in Waterville.
“Brandi and I are lifelong learners. We believe in navigating the world ourselves — trying to be independent, trying to take risks and do things we are not really comfortable with, which is also the same model we want for our students,” Vallieres said.
Each school day runs from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. For an additional cost, children can stay from 2:30-5 p.m. for extended care. Vallieres and Grady plan to offer a summer camp.
Hinterland Preschool and extended care offers a three-, four-, or five-day schedule. Three days of preschool costs $130, four $140, and five $150. Extended care for three days is $15, four $20, and five $25.
The preschool has room for more children ages 40 months to 6 years. Parents can replace public kindergarten with Hinterland as well.
“We will be preparing (students) for public schools in a way that we feel is developmentally appropriate,” Grady said.
“Because we’ve had experience in working in public schools, we have a strong understanding of what the needs are for the public schools,” Vallieres said.
Vallieres and Grady hope to have 20 students and will cap enrollment at 26.
Any child from the surrounding towns is eligible to attend the school. Parents or caregivers are responsible for transportation and meals.
A blackboard in front of the school defines the term “hinterland” as “an area lying beyond what is visible or known.” The teachers chose the word because it goes along with what they want their students to do – “foster their curiosity.”
Vallieres and Grady said they hope their students can be “investigators” indoors and outdoors. They also want their students to become confident, independent decision-makers.
“If you’re thinking about children and child development, how do children learn the best? Children learn the best through hands-on, engaging activities where they are immersed in the activity themselves,” Vallieres said. “There’s no better way than providing those opportunities as often as possible.”
Inside the preschool is a kitchen play set, books, reading corners, blocks, and more. The two-story building has a library upstairs, which is not accessible now, but will be in the future.
Outside is a small, fenced-in playground, with a climbing wall, slide, and swings. Students will have access to 100 acres around the preschool, which is at 39 Jewett Lane, off Route 194.
Some of the activities children will engage in outdoors include tapping trees for sap and identifying plants on the hiking trails behind the school.
“That’s what’s key is engaging the students. We are not going to make any progress with students if they are not engaged in what they are learning,” Grady said.
The teachers have other curriculum ideas and plans for their small learners.
Children could learn about basic survival skills, such as what to do with a first aid kit and what to do if they become lost, Vallieres said.
The teachers hope to have a garden for students to learn how a seed becomes a vegetable. Vallieres said the children would be able to give “the fruits of their labor” to the community and their families.
A wildlife scent station could be set up to attract animals to the forest behind the school so students can identify animal tracks, Grady said.
Vallieres and Grady want to introduce the students to some of the homesteading activities they participate in, such as owning chickens and possibly bees.
They are thinking of bringing parents in to experience what the children are learning as well as bringing community members into the school to share their talents or culture with the children.
The Hinterland School partners with Child Development Services, a part of the Maine Department of Education, which provides case management, instruction, and other services for families with children who have developmental disabilities. The partnership allows children with any disabilities to attend the preschool, the teachers said.
Vallieres and Grady will be at the school full time. They plan to hire someone for extended care who will work 2-5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, and 1-5 p.m. Wednesday. The person must have CPR training and six months of child care experience, and must pass a background check.
They are going to hire substitutes, like any public school. They also anticipate hiring for summer camp.
To inquire about enrollment, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 549-0979. For more information, find Sheepscot Valley Hinterland Preschool on Facebook.