Suzanne Griffiths has been at the helm of Westbrook Nursery School since 1969. "Our minister came to me on the night of my (wedding) rehearsal dinner and asked if I would do it. I said yes to that, and the next day 'yes' to my husband, and I've been with both for 50 years," Griffiths said.

CANTON  Disney bills itself as "The Happiest Place on Earth," but it may have a challenger in the form of the Westbrook Park Nursery School.

Just before 9 a.m., a stream of adults and their children make their way into the school housed at Westbrook Park United Methodist Church, 2521 12th St. NW.

There to greet them is Suzanne Griffiths, who has been the school's administrator since 1969.

That's long enough to have served 8,112 children and long enough to have several teachers on staff who were once students.

Griffiths views her service as her mission, one that began after a church member returned from a trip abroad and suggested Westbrook look for a way to make better use of its facility. A committee came up with the idea of a child care center and nursery school.

"I was just thinking I was going to help get it started," Griffiths recalled. "Our minister came to me on the night of my (wedding) rehearsal dinner and asked if I would do it. I said yes to that, and the next day 'yes' to my husband, and I've been with both for 50 years."

Griffiths had no prior expertise in early childhood education. At the time, she was studying English at Kent State University.

"I have always viewed this as a calling," she said. "When God taps you on the shoulder ..."

Westbrook Park Nursery School became a pilot program for then-Malone College, which went on to open its own.

The school used a curriculum created by the United Methodist Church, which operated learning centers.

Westbrook predates a time before early child development, with its emphasis on creativity and exploration, was a field of study.

"When we started, this was a relatively new field," Griffiths said. "Now the idea is that kids go to kindergarten five days a week, seven-and-a-half hours a day. They need to be prepared."

'A predictable science'

Westbrook accepts children who are 3 by November, up to age 5. Currently, 123 are enrolled.

"We will take any child that does not require a 1:1 ratio," Griffiths said. "We are not special-needs trained, like the public schools."

The school also offers "T Time," a twice-yearly, six-week musical movement program for babies up to age 2.

Notably, Westbrook Park Nursery School does not offer technology to keep kids engaged. Griiffths points to the stock of puzzles, blocks, books and costumes.

Guest speakers, and the Stark County District Library Bookmobile also make regular visits, Griffiths said.

"The greatest potential for children learning is the early years," she said. "We offer a lot of enrichment, including ballet, keyboard, drama, and Spanish. They need the opportunity to explore. We also address their spiritual and emotional needs.

"Child development is predictable, no matter the technology. Children still have the same basic needs and the same play stages. It's a predictable science. Children will always be children. What changes is our expectations of them."

As they helped children make a jack-o'-lantern, parent volunteers Eric and Rebecca Paliswat said they enrolled their son, Jax, 3, after talking to family and friends.

"We had a lot of friends who highly recommended it," Rebecca Paliswat said.  "I also have cousins who went here."

She said the school also gives Jax, an only child, time to connect with other kids, adding that he has become more outgoing and polite since he started attending last year.

"We're very happy with it," Eric Paliswat added. "He's excited to come here."

Many families discover the center through word of mouth.

Fountain of youth

"Seventy-five percent of kids are brought here by their grandparents because their parents are working," Griffiths said.

The connections run deep. Five of its current staffers attended the school as children. All teachers are Playright trained.

"Every year, 25 to 30 kids have parents who were in the nursery school," Griffiths said.

One of them is Carolyn Gemma, a teacher who attended as a child, as did her two sons.

"She's the best," Gemma said of Griffiths. "She makes us her top priority and gives us 100 percent."

Gemma said the goal of the nursery school is simple:

"It's all about playing and learning how to play and developing kindness; skills you need in real life," she said. You can't be successful if you aren't kind."

Annette Hayden, who comes from a family of educators, has been a teacher for 28 tears. She brought her children to Westbrook, too.

"She's so caring," Hayden said of Griffiths. "She knows as much about children as anybody. She's just a great administrator."

Longtime administrative assistant Peggy Stewart agrees.

"She's so committed to these children and families and helping them to learn in the Christian manner," she said Stewart, whose son attended in 1980.

"Every one of my staff members, I see as parents," Griffiths said.

Griffiths said she will continue to serve Westbrook Nursery School for as long as she is wanted.

"It's my fountain of youth."

To learn more call 330-456-4797 or visit www.westbrookparkumc.org

Reach Charita at 330-580-8313 or charita.goshay@cantonrep.com
On Twitter: @cgoshayREP