Princeton Nursery School
A Safe Haven For Nearly A Century
By Anne Levin | Photos courtesy of Princeton Nursery School
In a colorful classroom lined with child-size desks, bookshelves, and cozy nooks, nap time is coming to a close. Sleepy-eyed 3- and 4-year-olds are beginning to stir on their mats. As soft music plays in the background, their teacher sets out afternoon snacks of apple slices and peanut butter.
It is a ritual that has likely been repeated, at this preschool on Leigh Avenue, for nearly a century. Housed in two simple buildings converted into one, Princeton Nursery School has been a mainstay of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood since 1929. It was founded by a wealthy Princeton resident, Margaret Matthews-Flinsch, to help working mothers who desperately needed a place for their preschool-aged children to go during the day. As the story goes, Flinsch was motivated to act when she discovered that her laundress was locking her child in the servants’ quarters while she worked.
Matthews-Flinsch persuaded her wealthy friends to contribute. The idea was not only to provide affordable child care, but to also give the children a preschool experience following the philosophy of Dr. Maria Montessori, encouraging development of the whole child.
From its inception, the school was integrated — unlike elsewhere in Princeton, where elementary schools remained segregated until 1948. That posed a challenge.
“The late John Matthews spoke of the difficulty his cousin Margaret experienced in obtaining funding for the school because of its integrated student body,” wrote Wendy Cotton, a former executive director of the school, in a letter to Town Topics newspaper in 2015. “Margaret’s parents, the Rev. and Mrs. Paul Matthews, and many of their friends provided financial support to the school.”
Princeton Nursery School was created as a nonprofit to serve the neighborhood, and it has remained in its original location to do just that. While recent renovations have updated the kitchen – which serves breakfast, lunch, and a snack each day – and upgraded the playground, it is an old building. Maintenance is ongoing, and space is at a premium.
Many of the 43 students (there is room for 54) live within walking distance of the school. Parents drop them off anywhere from 7:30 to about 9am, and pick them up between about 3 and 5:30pm, depending on their work schedules. Tuition is on a sliding scale, based on income and family size. Some families qualify for subsidies. Volunteers — including parents, alumni, retired adults, local high school and college students, and other members of the community —help out.
It is this strong sense of community that attracted new executive director Leanna Jahnke to the school. Former executive director Rose Wong left last January to become chief operating office of the YWCA Princeton. Jahnke was hired after a comprehensive search.
A thirtysomething mother of three, Jahnke graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in Hispanic studies. She is currently a candidate at Penn for a master’s degree in nonprofit leadership. Her resume includes 13 years of work in KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools, the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund (LALDEF), and Trenton’s Foundation Academy. Most recently, she was program coordinator for Wintersession and Campus Engagement at Princeton University.
Last year, Jahnke took a class in which she was asked to describe what her dream job might be. “I focused on a center where children are not only well taken care of, but are given the advantage of high-quality education, so that when they get to kindergarten, they are ready,” she said. “They are given this exposure in a fun and engaging way, where they feel happy to be learning, and then that feeling continues from early childhood on. I wanted to empower teachers to do their best. I wanted to engage with families, helping them, and engage with the local community. When I had my interview at Princeton Nursery School, it was as if I had found all of that. It was as if it was meant to be.”
The fact that the school is multicultural added another enticement. Jahnke’s father is from Nigeria and her mother is of Polish descent. She has been fluent in Spanish since her first job teaching at a pre-K school in Houston, where she and her husband lived after graduating from college.
Born in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, Jahnke spent a big chunk of her childhood in Waynesboro, Pa., which was home to her mother’s family. She and her four siblings were home schooled. “All five of us in grades three to five — I don’t know how my mother did it,” she said.
Jahnke and her husband lived in Houston for almost four years. Homesick, they moved back east. She continued to work for KIPP schools, this time focusing on founding and recruitment. At Trenton’s Foundation Academy, she helped start the first kindergarten class. “Then, I took a more senior leadership role supporting teachers, students, and their families,” she said. “That became a focus for me, particularly with the Spanish-speaking students.”
She felt she had found her niche. “I do well at this, and I really enjoy it,” she said. “At Foundation, I saw that there is the school side of things, and there is the other side. Parents would ask me about how they could continue their own educations. They would open up to me about various needs they had.”
Jahnke has always loved teaching. But being able to do more, providing services for the family as a whole, has become her focus. “There were moments in my career where I could have kept teaching,” she said. “But the leadership side was calling me.”
Her first official day on the job was May 31. A few weeks before, she visited the school to observe and prepare.
“I got to meet with the teachers, and see how this learning happens,” she said. “I went to their multi-cultural night last week. I met the parents and brought my own kids. I see the challenges, but I see so many great things already. I can’t wait to get started.”
For more on Princeton Nursery School or to donate, visit princetonnurseryschool.org.
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