Winnetka Community Nursery School was founded during the Second World War to care for children whose mothers wished to take some part in the war effort. The year was 1943, and Winnetka women—like their counterparts throughout the U.S.—were eager to participate in the war effort. Since domestic help was nearly impossible to obtain, childcare was a pressing issue. A group of Winnetka mothers formed an advisory board to explore the feasibility of starting a professional nursery school. They went on to obtain a state charter and establish the Winnetka Community Nursery School (WCNS).
On March 8,1944, the school opened in a pleasant room of the Parish House of Christ Episcopal Church. With an enrollment of 75 children ages three to five, the school moved three months later to temporary quarters at the North Shore Country Day School. Then in September, the school settled into three upstairs rooms and an outdoor play area leased at the Winnetka Community House.
Tuition was 25 cents an hour per child. The school depended heavily on volunteers since equipment, staff and financial resources were limited. As a fundraising effort, in 1945 Phoebe Ryerson hosted in her own backyard a "fair" for young children. Complete with games, contests and even pony rides, it was a great success, raising $500. Thus began a deep-seated tradition in Winnetka, the annual Children's Fair. The fair has become increasingly elaborate over the years, enlisting the help of more than 1,000 volunteers annually. Attractions include professional rides, booths, The Main Show theater production and prizes that draw thousands of children and parents from throughout the North Shore and Chicago area.
For Winnetka school children, the fair marks the official beginning of summer. Children race from their last morning of classes on the Friday of the first weekend in June and head to the Village Green. Most of the profits fund scholarships and special needs.
Although the Children's Fair is perhaps the most visible part of the enterprise, its reason for being is, of course, the nurturing of children.
Throughout the years, WCNS made several moves within the Community House as it searched for more permanent quarters. Juliette Macy, one of the first directors, wrote: "I still dream of a 'home' for the Nursery School . . . ."
After 27 years, the dream came true on March 6, 1972, when the school moved into the newly built West Wing of the Community House, constructed specifically for the needs of a pre-school. The Winnetka Community Nursery contributed $40,000 to the building fund.
Another important change during this time period echoed the nursery school's beginnings. While the full-day program at the nursery school had been halted during the 1950s for lack of demand, the need to support the growing numbers of working mothers returned. In response WCNS opened a comprehensive day care program. An article in the Winnetka Talk in January 1975 declared, "Day care in Winnetka! It's so nice to know that someone cares."
For two generations, caring and warmth, combined with educational excellence for the young child have flourished as guiding principles of Winnetka Community Nursery School. Today, the school serves two-year-olds through four-year-olds, also offering auxiliary programs such as art, science and math enrichment.
Until 1961, it was an all-day nursery, providing both a morning-only program for children in the community, and a morning, lunch and afternoon program for those children whose mothers worked outside the home.
In 1961, the full-day program was discontinued due to limited demand. The morning program consisted of four groups including a group for children with special needs. The special needs class was discontinued when special education was adopted formally by the Winnetka Public Schools in 1968. In 1975, the full-day program was reopened to meet the needs of the community. The program was further redefined in the 1990's when the full-day program was divided into a morning and an extended-day program. Depending on a child's age, parents can now choose to send their children two to five days in the morning nursery school program.
In 1999, the Winnetka Historical Society recognized the historical importance of Winnetka Community Nursery School’s response to the need of children and community in “This House is Ours” by George Brodsky.