The Early Years

In 1927 Dr. Edna Baxter, a professor of religious education at Hartford Seminary, was asked by the Dean of the Missionary Department to find a way to care for the children of married students, as their parents trained to become missionaries. That she did. With no financial assistance from the Seminary and very little equipment, Dr. Baxter created a model nursery school for the ten to twelve children who came to the little basement room in Thomson Hall each weekday morning from 9:00 to 11:30. This was the first nursery school in Hartford. Viewing an understanding of children and their development as essential to their education, Dr. Baxter also provided Seminary students with education through hands-on experience with children.

By 1931, when the Seminary recognized the nursery school, there was a waiting list for entry, not just due to demand from Seminary students with children, but from the community as well. The school served as a laboratory, and many churches and other institutions came to study Dr. Baxter’s methods, as the preschool movement caught on and they sought to open their own schools. By 1945, pressure from parents helped pave the way for a move to a larger room in Knight Hall, and Knight Hall School was born. From its humble beginnings in the basement of the married students’ dormitory, to the model school it has become, quality and leadership based on current research and recognized best practice remain consistent.

Beginning with the missionary families, Knight Hall has always valued working with families from a variety of backgrounds. Dr. Baxter was an early proponent of helping children to learn to live with and value one another and to notice and appreciate nature. She believed these components to be essential to healthy character development.

The 1950s & ’60s

In the 1950s the school had a nurse check each child every morning before the child could attend.

Knight Hall under the direction first of Frances Gleason and then Dr. Georgianna Sie became better equipped. Wooden vehicles, unit blocks, puzzles, a record player and records, and some musical instruments were added, along with climbers, tricycles and a sandbox outside, and then finally two additional rooms and a proper playground. The school grew as the world outside it began to change. The influence of television increased, and mothers began moving more commonly into the workforce.

At this time, the nursery school experience was thought of as a supplement to home life that enabled the child to learn in a group environment and become more independent. The daily routine started between 8:30 and 8:55 am with an examination by the nurse, and included time outdoors, toileting, quiet time indoors for reading, music or art activities, and a snack proceeded by the saying of grace. Teachers were responsible for leaving the school clean and orderly at the end of the morning. This included mopping the floors daily since the Seminary no longer provided janitorial help. At the same time, under Doris Sharpe, the teachers were expected to continually increase their knowledge, not just of good practices, but of the research and theories of education underpinning them.

Near the end of the 1960’s, the Seminary’s missionary program folded and the Religious Education Department was discontinued. Fewer and fewer families from the Seminary participated in the school, and more and more from the greater Hartford community took their places. The school gained more of a middle class identity. However, to maintain the richness that came from the multicultural nature of the school, scholarships were offered to attract families from a variety of backgrounds.

Evolution in the 1970s

Knight Hall grew during this period in response to two significant national trends. As more and more women joined the workforce, demand for quality childcare increased exponentially. At the same time, educators and psychologists were increasingly emphasizing the importance of development in the first years of life. Knight Hall School, as an early leader in high-quality preschool education, had a waiting list several years long. Under the leadership of Patricia Hamner, Knight Hall finally moved from 5 mornings a week, to offering an additional program 3 afternoons a week for 3 and 4 year olds. By 1970 enrollment was up to 45 children. Team teaching was introduced, and monthly in-service days were instituted.

Unfortunately another trend began to affect the school, growing economic concerns. By 1971, Hartford Seminary could no longer afford to run the nursery school. The school formed an alliance with the Continuous Progress Educational Center, CPEC, which provided psychological and educational services. That relationship was short-lived. In 1974, partly to increase enrollment and partly in response to parent demand, a kindergarten program was established at Knight Hall. But teachers grew frustrated as CPEC continued to increase enrollment without increasing teaching staff, in order to make the school more affordable to run.

Finally, to save the school from a slipping reputation and from having to compromise its commitment to high-quality education, Dr. Robert Goodwin, the early childhood consultant on the CPEC board, a long-time supporter of the school and former teacher as a Seminary student, stepped in to take full responsibility for the school as executive director.

In 1975, Dr. Goodwin brought new curricula to the school. He established an extended day program in response to demand in the community. He also began a summer camp for 3 through 8 year olds, and experimented with a non-graded primary program for 6, 7 and 8 year olds. Similar to the preschool, the primary program offered individual attention, and used creative approaches to academic learning that involved a lot of hands-on experiences, allowing the children to develop at their own pace. This experiment lasted 3 years, but never gained the enrollment necessary to provide children with the social interaction Dr. Goodwin knew was important to children’s development.

The extended day program, however, was very popular. Opening the school from 7:30 am to 5:30 pm, this program met the needs of the growing group of single and working parents, by providing consistency of care for their children throughout the day. In just one year, the program became so popular, that the afternoon sessions of the nursery school were dropped in favor of the full-day approach.

Although the Seminary had continued to lease space in Knight Hall to the school under CPEC and Dr. Goodwin’s leadership, in 1978 the building was sold to the state to house the University of Connecticut’s Law School. Dr. Goodwin arranged to continue to lease space, while a group of parents formed the Developmental Committee to begin looking for a new home for the school. Finally in 1981, the school was able to rent the kindergarten wing of the closed Smith School from the town of West Hartford, and the school moved to St. James Street.

Through the present, commitment to quality

Knight Hall’s consistent dedication to quality education for children as individuals has made it one of Connecticut’s most well-respected school for young children. You can read more about our educational philosophy and mission to learn more.