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East Concord Cooperative Preschool shaken but hopeful after thefts

  • Angelica Hernandez-Garcia, 5, (center) looks up at Tommy Bemis (right)during a show-and-tell activity at the East Concord Cooperative School on Wednesday morning, April 30, 2014. <br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Angelica Hernandez-Garcia, 5, (center) looks up at Tommy Bemis (right)during a show-and-tell activity at the East Concord Cooperative School on Wednesday morning, April 30, 2014.
    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Tommy Bemis, 5, looks out the window during "The Weather Song" at the East Concord Cooperative School on Wednesday morning, April 30, 2014. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Tommy Bemis, 5, looks out the window during "The Weather Song" at the East Concord Cooperative School on Wednesday morning, April 30, 2014.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Scott Haskell (center) greets his four-year-old twin sons Camden and Chase while picking them up from the East Concord Cooperative School on Wednesday morning, April 30, 2014.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Scott Haskell (center) greets his four-year-old twin sons Camden and Chase while picking them up from the East Concord Cooperative School on Wednesday morning, April 30, 2014.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Angelica Hernandez-Garcia, 5, (center) looks up at Tommy Bemis (right)during a show-and-tell activity at the East Concord Cooperative School on Wednesday morning, April 30, 2014. <br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Tommy Bemis, 5, looks out the window during "The Weather Song" at the East Concord Cooperative School on Wednesday morning, April 30, 2014. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Scott Haskell (center) greets his four-year-old twin sons Camden and Chase while picking them up from the East Concord Cooperative School on Wednesday morning, April 30, 2014.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

It was almost noon at the East Concord Cooperative Preschool on Wednesday, and it was time for the weather song.

“What’s the weather? What’s the weather, everyone? It is windy? Is it cloudy? Is it rain, or is it sun?”

About 14 tiny voices sang the words from their seats on a colorful rug in their classroom at the Heights Community Center. Five-year-old Tommy Bemis craned his neck to look out the window, assessing the gray sky outside.

“What color is it today?” his teacher, Katy Clough, asked.

“Cloudy,” he said.

Times have been cloudy for the private preschool recently: A former treasurer was indicted earlier this year on charges of siphoning more than $4,600 from the nonprofit and doctoring records to conceal the theft. Jennifer Hawkins, 41, of Chichester is accused of taking the money from December 2008 to July 2011, when she was working there as a parent volunteer. In April, Hawkins pleaded not guilty to those charges.

The school is navigating those criminal proceedings in a courtroom, however, and the classroom is still a bright place for its 3- to 5-year-old students.

As they sang songs and molded Play-Doh, the legal worries seemed distant last week for Clough, an 11-year veteran of the cooperative, and Michelle Clarner, who is in her first year as executive director. When the kids had gone home for the day and the paints were put away, Clough and Clarner still didn’t want to dwell on the alleged crime.

The two teachers did credit parents, past and present, for stepping up to support the school since Hawkins’s arrest. The stolen money wasn’t a huge chunk of the preschool’s budget of about $40,000 a year, but the cooperative relies heavily on donations, tuition fees and volunteer hours from parents.

“We can feel the support from those families,” Clarner said. “It’s made them more giving and generous.”

At Wednesday’s dismissal, parent Heather Tiberi watched her 5-year-old daughter, Ainsley, collect her ladybug raincoat. News of the theft was a shock to the parents, Tiberi said, but it has also banded them closer together.

“We’ll get through this,” said Tiberi, who is also a member of the cooperative’s board. “We’re such a close community.”

That close community is part of the school’s philosophy, Clarner said. Tiberi was a “parent of the day” at the cooperative Wednesday, meaning she was logging the volunteer time required by the cooperative’s bylaws. Parents must spend a half day in the classroom about once a month.

“When you have a parent and a teacher working as a team, they grow (much more),” Clarner said of her students.

Tiberi’s two older sons didn’t attend the cooperative – Ainsley was the first of her children to enroll there. She’s already planning to send her 2-year-old daughter, Addison, to the cooperative next year.

“The involvement and getting to know the other families that are here, I really liked that,” she said.

The first cooperative preschool in Concord was founded in 1954 and sponsored by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. In the early 1980s, the city withdrew its support for the teachers’ salaries due to budget cuts, and the preschool became an independent nonprofit.

Now, about $30,000 of the preschool’s annual revenue comes from tuition fees. The remaining money comes from donations and fundraisers, such as the GoFundMe campaign that has raised a little more than $2,000 of this year’s $10,000 goal so far. Member parents organize other fundraisers, such as an annual 5K race and yard sales, which also scrape together money for the school’s operating costs.

Getting that money together each year is like entertaining a classroom full of preschoolers, like days when “you’ve got to pull a rabbit out of your hat,” Clough said. Right now, the school is enrolling students for another year – another year of alphabet games and Play-Doh, another year of crafting Valentines for senior citizens and singing the weather song, another year of covering the costs of making the school run.

“Anything we can do, anything we can give them,” Clarner said.

At dismissal Wednesday, Andrew Bemis of Penacook watched 5-year-old Tommy inch toward the door. Bemis said his family chose the cooperative after visiting several preschools last summer, when they moved into the area. He liked the volunteer requirement that brings him inside his son’s classroom regularly.

“I liked this sort of smaller classroom,” Bemis said.

He caught up with his son, who was impatient to head home.

“You can be the zombie,” Tommy told his dad, but he first ran back to the classroom to wrap his small arms around Clarner’s legs.

“Bye, Miss Michelle,” he said.

Then Tommy was out the door, running toward the gray skies outside – sunshine on a cloudy day.

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or mdoyle@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)

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