When Cheryl Chandler was eight years old and living in White Plains, her mother bought eight hinged-top desks from a nearby Catholic school that was closing. Mom lugged the $2 desks home, one by one, and set them up in rows for her daughter. “I was in third grade, and I had a little school,” Cheryl recalled. “I made my story books into library books by putting cards in them. At 3:00, when kids came home from school, they would come to my school. I knew this was what I wanted to do.”
In June, when the last Supertots class of four-year-olds graduated, hundreds attended the ceremony, including many grown alumni, Cheryl’s four sons and three grandchildren, and her mother. She calculated that with interest, the $16 her mother had spent on the desks was worth about $287, so she presented her mother with a check for that amount, telling her, “It was a really good investment” in the career of the founder of Woodstock’s much-loved preschool.
Although Cheryl and her husband, Dave, have moved to a new home in Olive, she can’t quite let go of Supertots after devoting 34 years to the school. “I’ve invited parents to send their kids on sleepovers,” she said. “I tell them, ‘I’m good, I’m free, and I’m bored.’”
On September 24, she invited alumni and parents to an open house and showed off an outbuilding that has been set up for visiting kids. Each of the two rooms is furnished with a set of bunk beds and decorated with paraphernalia from the school — hanging flags, for instance, on the girls’ side and paper lanterns on the boys’ side. Children were given sets of photos of items imported from Supertots and scattered throughout the house, and they had to hunt for the objects — an example of the creativity and meaning Cheryl brings to the projects she designs for her students.
In the main house, the bathroom has been made into a replica of the one at Supertots, with signs all over the walls: “Discover.” “Dream.” “Swing as high as you can on a swingset, by moonlight….” “Children are to be seen, heard, and believed.” In the basement, down a flight of rainbow-painted steps, is a playroom, with stuffed animals, books, wooden blocks. Heather Longyear has just started her own Woodstock preschool, Little School on the Farm, and much of her play equipment, cubbies, and kid-sized furniture came from Supertots. “First I skimmed off ten percent of the stuff and brought it down here,” said Cheryl, sprawled on the rug in the cheerful playroom.
Two days before the open house, Cheryl received an important delivery — a little wooden gazebo with a sign that reads, “Forrest’s Place.” Now installed in the side yard, the gazebo used to sit in Fairyland, a wooded area that was the favorite spot of Forrest Schoenberger, who attended Supertots from the age of one until he died of liver cancer at three and a half.
“We used to have story time and music time in the gazebo when the weather was nice,” said Cheryl. “I hung a purple gazing ball from the ceiling in honor of Forrest because purple was his favorite color.” When he was diagnosed, Forrest underwent chemo for a year and a half, preventing him from joining the classes at Supertots. In the evenings, he would come over with his parents, and he and Cheryl would garden and play outside wearing headlamps. When he was three, the unsuccessful treatments were abandoned, and he returned to the school so he could play with his friends.
After his death, Supertots observed Purple Day once a year, celebrating the legacy of Forrest. Everyone wore purple and ate purple snacks, surrounded by purple decorations. Cheryl paged through a book about Forrest compiled by his classmates, including lessons they learned from him: You don’t need much. Kindness is never wasted. Don’t worry. “I live by some of these things,” said Cheryl, who copied them into a single page to keep in her office, heady wisdom handed down by preschoolers.
Whenever anything at Supertots needed painting or building, Dave was there to help out. “He’s the rock,” Cheryl said. They met when she was 15 and he was 16, living in Ridgewood, New Jersey. They both signed up to tutor kids in inner-city Paterson. “We were supposed to help them with their skills,” she said, “but we just loved them up, danced around with them. It was something we did together. On our first date, I announced I was going to have a school.”
Cheryl attended Wheelock College in Boston, earning a bachelors in early childhood education in 1976. To her delight, one of her alumni is now studying at Wheelock. After college, she taught nursery school for five years, and then the family moved to Woodstock. Unable to find a preschool that met her criteria for play-based, child-centered education, she kept her first child home until he started kindergarten. That year, 1983, she started Supertots so her twins could have the kind of care she was looking for: no TV, no technology, no brands. Her school had nothing Disney or Sesame Street. Creativity was paramount. “When the kids do art projects,” she said, “if two things go home looking alike, I feel I’ve failed.”
At first, people were skeptical. They told her a school that was also a parents’ cooperative, with one parent helping out at every class, would never fly in Woodstock. She didn’t even take a photo of her first class of children, fearing the school would collapse. By January, the phone was ringing, and before long, she had a waiting list of 30 children.
Each class — infants, toddlers, preschool, and preschool plus — was limited to eight children. For eight years, to accommodate the waiting list, she held two sessions a day, but when she started to burn out, she phased back to one session as kids graduated.
From 1990 to 1992, she spent her summers studying at Wheelock to obtain a masters in infant and toddler education, leaving Dave home with the four kids. “Dave’s a marathon runner,” Cheryl said. “Usually we spelled each other so we could both get exercise. While I was away, Dave put a baby monitor on the porch and ran in circles around our house on Plochmann Lane. When I got home, there was a trench around the house.”
After 34 years of working as a psychologist in the Saugerties school system, Dave retired two years ago. Cheryl wanted to spend more time with him and with her kids and grandchildren, so she stopped admitting new classes and closed the school when the last class of seven preschool plus children graduated.
The night before the graduation, a group of mothers surprised her by renting a limo and taking her out, all of them dressed in turquoise, her favorite color. She revealed her secret — that she’d had the Supertots logo, designed by her oldest son, tattooed on her ankle the month before. She’d been wearing socks ever since, not wanting to show anyone until it was completely healed. “My kids freaked out,” she said. “I never let them get tattoos. But I need it, to keep Supertots close.”
Cheryl hasn’t decided what her next project will be. “Something meaningful that doesn’t involve money,” she said. Meanwhile, she had a babysitting gig set up for that night, looking after a four-year-old, a seven-year-old, and a ten-year-old. She was really looking forward to it.