Six years ago, Logan Square resident Amy Ewaldt dreamed of opening a preschool where classrooms were diverse, teachers were locals, and kids discovered their education one experience at a time.
Today, her dream is a reality. Cortland Preschool, 1859 N. Talman Ave., is home to 36 students in Logan Square. With Ewaldt at the helm, the school follows the standards she believes in, and the three prongs she hoped for when her dream was born.
Ewaldt’s professional history begins at a preschool in Old Town, where she ran a program for six years.
“While I was doing that, I became more interested in comments from parents that they didn’t see their children visible in their child’s work,” Ewaldt explains. “Every kid’s work looked exactly the same.
“So we started tinkering with the process versus the product, and tried to shift things more into the children’s hands.”
Building A School From A Dilapidated Storefront
Ewaldt decided to go back and get her Master’s Degree in education at Columbia College Chicago. After graduating, and getting an onslaught of unsolicited job offers for director positions, Ewaldt wondered: “Is it nuts if I just open up my own preschool?” Some inner turmoil and consulting with friends and family later, Ewaldt embarked on establishing her soon-to-be dream preschool at the corner or Talman and Cortland.
“We took over a corner storefront, and it came with this troubled face,” she says. “It originally had a bathroom with a huge hole in the wall, and there were six or seven couches, burst pipes, bikes laying around … there was a tiki bar in there.
“We had to get the building up to code, and we had to rebuild a lot of stuff. It took a lot of time, sweat and money.”
The school has now been open for the past three years.
Scholarships Help Achieve Preschool’s Diversity Goal
In order to achieve the economic diversity in the classroom she hoped for, Ewaldt turns to the community to provide two full and two partial scholarships every year through fundraising events. The full scholarship is valued at $10,000, while the partial is half at $5,000. In the three years Cortland has been open, the four scholarships have been fulfilled each year, meaning 12 students have had access to the preschool who wouldn’t normally be able to afford it.
“Diversity is a conversation everyone wants to have, but actually practicing it is totally different,” Ewaldt says. “We ask the community for support, and they’re great about it.
“We try to spread the wealth, if you will. So everyone can be at Cortland in the way that they need to be.”
That includes employees. Ewaldt is proud of the fact that her preschool has created eight jobs in the neighborhood that didn’t exist 3 years ago.
Big Emphasis On Community Involvement
In addition to her life as director of Cortland Preschool, Ewaldt is also on the West Bucktown Neighborhood Association board and hosts a children’s garden club in nearby Lucy Flower Park, 2554 W. Moffat St.
“Lucy Flower was off the map when I came to the neighborhood,” Ewaldt says. “It was just old and getting more and more broken. We applied for some grants over the years, and got the park more established.”
The five to seven club events held throughout the year are free and open to all children. They begin as soon as the weather warms, and last through about Nov. 10.
Ewaldt said she hopes to turn the garden club projects into a science curriculum for Logan Square elementary schools.
“They could walk over on a field trip to use the park, in different stations, then meet their science requirements and be in their own parks,” she says.
Ewaldt advertises club events as organically as the garden itself by posting fliers and through word-of-mouth.