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Davenport Preschool opens with beloved staffer Erika Brannock in attendance

Davenport Preschool Director Liz Harlan, along with staff and parents, spent nine months working toward the day when the tiny chairs and tables of the new Hampton school's classrooms would be filled for the first time with children scribbling with crayons.

The school community worked through the uncertainties of the county permit process, the refurbishment of the former church building and then, their concerns of their friend and fellow staffer, Erika Brannock, who was injured in the Boston Marathon bombing.

But all the months-long efforts led to Friday when, during the grand opening of the school, teachers and other staff, who had for weeks gripped paintbrushes to get the place ready instead held toddlers' tiny hands while touring the school. Classes will begin Monday.

"I think I'm finally excited," Harlan said as toddlers and parents filed through the school. "Just having the noise in the hallways makes it feel like it's actually alive now."

That the once-plain church building, its classrooms now bright and overflowing with children's toys, felt so comfortable and familiar said as much about the space as it did the community that now occupies it.

Harlan left her previous school, Trinity Episcopal Children's Center, in June 2012 after five years in charge. The move, which reportedly stemmed from sweeping changes within the parish, shocked the families that grew to know her.

They encouraged Harlan to start her own school. In fact, one parent, Campus Hills resident Andrea Otis, found the Belvedere Christian Church site in Hampton and suggested Harlan check it out. Harlan was convinced.

Harlan held an open house in January and then spent the last nine months building her dream school.

But she said, had she known all the red tape she'd have to cut through before they could cut the red ribbon Friday, she might have reconsidered.

"I know how to run a school, I know what goes in the classroom, but all the logistical stuff — no wonder people thought I was crazy when I said I'd do this in nine months," she said.

"If it weren't for the circumstances leading up to it and knowing there were so many families and so many faculty members I was so invested in, it might not have happened. But there was a pretty big force behind it all, and a great reason to stick my neck out there and try it."

When the work seemed never-ending and energy seemed to be waning, the school community found a source of strength within itself. Erika Brannock, who had been a teacher at the Trinity center and planned to follow Harlan to Davenport, was injured in the Boston Marathon bombing. Brannock lost part of her leg in the tragedy.

Harlan said the tragic event brought the community back together and refocused everyone on their vision of the new school.

Brannock remains part of the Davenport family and the school has an empty 3-year-old classroom earmarked for Brannock when she has recovered enough to return. For now, it's being used for storage.

"It's perfect, because she's normally the one who organizes everything anyways, and it's a disaster," Harlan said. "Everything just got dumped in there."

Even if she has to clean it up first, Brannock appreciates that she's such a steady part of Davenport's plans in a time of personal uncertainty.

"It's so good to know that I have their support and I can do my recovery, get my graduate degree taken care of and they'll be there for me after that," Brannock said.

During Friday's opening, with about 200 people in attendance, some of the students watered the Erika Brannock Learning Garden for the first time.

The garden sits in the preschool's large open space behind the building and was donated and constructed by Brickman Landscaping this summer. Each class has its own section of the garden to maintain, with different portions containing sunflowers, vegetables and perennials.

Harlan said the school community's show of support for Brannock only reinforced her commitment to starting the school. As the concept of the school grew closer to reality, she said a revolving cast of family and friends chipped in where they could to ensure the project was finished.

Lindsay Golden, a pre-K teacher, painted most of the classrooms with Harlan and even helped with painting parking lines in the driveway. Parents organized painting parties, worked weekends and still asked Harlan what else could be done to help.

Otis, the former Trinity center parent, was given a big pair of scissors for Friday's ribbon-cutting to show how large a role she played in the school's development, Harlan said.

"The more we talked about it, the more we realized it would come to fruition," Otis said.

Parents in attendance Friday were thrilled with the result.

Raechelle Norton, whose 3-year-old daughter, Kiera, is starting at Davenport this year, said she "didn't even give it a second thought" when it came to enrolling her this year.

"The five years we were (at Trinity center) with Liz was the best experience for us," Norton said. "The teachers are wonderful. It's just a safe environment, very comfortable and warm."

Many of the 109 students enrolled are familiar with staff, but others, like 4-year-old Sofia Theoharidis, are newcomers.

Sofia's parents, Thomas and Elena, enrolled her Thursday after an extensive search.

Thomas Theoharidis said he enjoyed the sprawling indoor and outdoor space, as "all the other pre-ks were in basements."

"I took a risk, but I like the overall look and atmosphere," Elena Theoharidis said.

On Friday, Harlan's roles were manifold. She frantically searched for Brannock's watering can, her own camera and greeted parents and children as they walked through the halls. It was a touch of the familiar in a year where she said she woke up every day and didn't know what her job would be.

But when the school opens Monday, a set of familiar circumstances will jar her back to the role she worked all year toward.

"I'm going to be holding some crying children," she said. "I guarantee it."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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