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Final class, parents, director say good-bye to Idlewylde Nursery School

It's time.

That's the short version of why Connie Henning decided to retire from her post as the director of Idlewylde Nursery School, which she has faithfully served for 31 years.

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Shortly after an official retirement announcement letter she mailed to school parents last fall, officials of the Idlewylde United Methodist Church, in Towson, decided to close the school after 50 years of operation, making the news a double whammy for the community. The final class exited the school's modest one-story red-brick building on the church's grounds for the last time May 26. The school operated under the church's auspices.

"It was my decision made in the fall," Henning said of her retirement. "And then the church needed to make the decision to go forward or close the program, so the parents had time to find another school."

The outpouring of love since the announcement from grateful parents and former students is a good indicator of the impact the Wiltondale resident has had on so many lives.

"It's bittersweet," said Heather Grandsire, an Anneslie resident who taught at the school for six years. "We're sad for the community, but happy for Connie. This school has been her world for a long time."

When Henning, 68, first enrolled her own children in Idlewylde Nursery School, it already was blessed with a warm and welcoming atmosphere that had been established over 17 years by her predecessor, Carol Marshall.

After becoming the school's director in 1985, Henning was eager to keep those attributes that had defined Marshall's tenure, while adding a few tweaks of her own.

"I kept the basic philosophy," the former Loch Hill resident said. "But we made it into more of a school. We added some structure to it."

According to several parents of current students — including one whom Henning taught three decades ago — the school maintains a perfect balance between learning and leisure.

"Connie is awesome," said Kim Wisler, a student in Henning's 1984-85 class who now lives in Perry Hall, and whose daughter, Leah, 4, just completed her first year at the school. "She allows kids to be kids. She's very big into playtime."

Wisler, who grew up in Loch Hill and graduated from Loch Raven High School, said that the 20-minute commute from her current home to the Regester Avenue school is a small price to pay in order to give Leah such a wonderful experience. Other families have made the trek from as far away as Severna Park, Federal Hill and Stewartstown, Pa.

"I never even looked at another pre-school," said Wisler, whose older daughter, Kaelyn, 7, also attended the school. "It was a no-brainer to send them here. Connie is just so good teaching them art and music and cooking. She let's them get their hands dirty, and what kid doesn't like that?"

Henning, who has a bachelor's in early childhood education from Millersville University of Pennsylvania, also made sure the school boasted a low teacher-to-student ratio.

"We kept class sizes at 17 kids and had three teachers for each class," she said.

The price of tuition — $1,650 for three-days-per week for four-year-olds and $950 for twice-weekly classes for three-year-olds — was also kept low, Henning said.

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"That's not a semester, that's for a year," Henning said proudly, noting that much of the tuition cost was underwritten by Idlewylde United Methodist Church.

"It was always our intent to be affordable for young families," she added. "That's the time when some people might have limited means. You can see why the community didn't want to lose the school."

The school has a special place in the heart of Rachel Rock Palermo, whose son, Sam, was a student in the class for 3-year-olds when his father, Thomas, was killed by a drunken hit-and-run motorist on Roland Avenue during the 2014 winter holiday break.

"Connie and the teachers created a safe place for Sam," Palermo said. "They waited and watched to see what he needed, and they asked me straight out what I needed. They contacted aIl the other parents at the school. They were just very consistent with Sam, and I think the other kids picked up on that. What they did meant a lot to me."

Henning said her reaction to the news, other than profound sadness, was to provide as much support to the family as possible.

"That was a tough one," Henning said, revealing that it was just the fourth time during her tenure that a student's parent died. "When you deal with something like that, all you can do is love them through it. We tried to provide a consistently loving environment — a foundation — for Sam. The good thing is, kids live in the moment. As children ask questions you answer them individually. The details didn't have to be told to them."

Henning's demeanor and dedication will be sorely missed, several parents said. In some cases, Henning's efforts on behalf of the school and community have touched three generations of a single family, said Carol Pazdersky, the pastor of Idlewylde United Methodist Church and its sister parish, St. John's United Methodist Church, in Lutherville.

"Teaching nursery school was more than a job for Connie; it was her passion and ministry," Pazdersky said, adding that, as Henning heads into retirement, her ministry will not end. "As the church moves into new ministry areas, Connie is already looking at ways in which her skills and gifts can support these efforts."

In the end, Henning said she loved teaching her students to love learning.

"We just loved teaching the kids and watch their eyes light up when they learned something new," she said. "We wanted them to love reading and math and art. We wanted them to just love school in a loving environment."

Celebration for Connie Henning

To honor Connie Henning upon her retirement and to celebrate the teachers at Idlewylde UMC Nursery school, the school will hold an open house June 5 from 2 p.m.-5 p.m.

•To donate finger foods, beverages, cups, plates, or napkins, contact Ellen Birkenthal at birk1205@verizon.net

•To give a gift card for the teachers and/or to a gift to missions in Idlewylde UMC's name, contact Alison Dombrowski at Alison_mclean@hotmail.com.

•On June 12 at 11 a.m., the Idlewylde UMC will have a service of thanksgiving and remembrance for the years of ministry of the nursery school. To contribute to a photo montage to be shown during the service, please send to carol.pazdersky@gmail.com.

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