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Lessons learned in preschool prepared him to buy the school 24 years later

It’s the sort of storybook ending that Mary and Dan Szeglowski like to read to their students under a tent in the large yard behind their Discovery Schoolhouse on a country road in Hamburg:

When he was 11 years old and about to leave the schoolhouse’s summer camp for the last time, John Maher declared that he would return.

“Oh, don’t worry. I will be back,” he said to Mary Szeglowski. “I’m going to be back because I’m going to buy the school.”

“Oh John, that’s very nice,” she replied.

“I know, Mrs. Mary, you’re the real boss. I’ll get myself a Mrs. Mary,” he said.

[Photo gallery: Learning is fun at the Discovery Schoolhouse]

And that’s what he did, 24 years after he started at Discovery Schoolhouse as a 3-year-old.

At the end of the summer, Maher and his new wife will formally take ownership of the preschool where he learned how to tie his shoes.

Maher doesn’t remember the intentions that he declared as an 11-year-old, but he continued his love of science, earning a master’s degree in biology.

He is engaged to his future “Mrs. Mary.” Her name is actually Liz Smith, and she is a specialist in early childhood and special education. The couple will be married this month, and they will take over the school next month.

Mary and Dan Szeglowski, 68 and 69 years old, who put their sweat, tears and laughter into building the preschool for 34 years, are retiring and selling the school. They ran into Maher and Smith at a baptism last fall, and mentioned they were putting the school up for sale.

Maher, 27, and Smith, 26, decided to buy it, and they have pledged to continue the philosophy, spirit and atmosphere of the independent full-day preschool known for its engrossing appreciation of science and nature combined with a no nonsense approach to learning.

It’s a place where 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds learn about the planets and can talk about their order from the sun, where they learn to tie their shoes as well as how to listen, how to follow directions and to be kind and decent human beings. And where children love exploring each room, from the puzzle room, to the wood floor room to the rug room, to the outdoors, where former students up to 11 years old return for the summer session.

“Everything’s exciting. What are you interested in? Find out about it. Come back and teach me about it,” Dan Szeglowski tells the children.

Maher told Smith, who has taught general and special education kindergarten and first grade, all about the school even before they knew it was for sale. They took hikes to the creek behind the school just as he used to do as a student, and he intended to propose to her last summer by the “sacred turtle” rock. But they didn’t quite get there that day.

“The day was really hot and there were bugs everywhere,” Smith recalled, adding they never made it to the rock, but did get engaged that day.

Mrs. Mary and Mr. Dan – as they are known to their students – started Discovery Schoolhouse 34 years ago. When they acquired the former Shaleton District No. 4 School on Heltz Road in 1977, the property had deteriorated into a boarded-up leaky building with 6 inches of ice built up in one room. They took time to fix the building, and have lived on the bottom floor ever since, although they will be moving to Eden. They will remain at the school until October for a transition. The couple has two children and three grandsons.

Critters have always been a part of the schoolhouse, which is fully licensed by New York State, and has survived in this day of universal pre-kindergarten.
After having rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters over the years, the Szeglowskis settled on using gentle chinchillas to give children a sense of responsibility. They breed the chinchillas, so students will learn about reproduction. They also get eggs in the spring and raise chickens every year.

Recycling is big at the school, and everything is saved for a craft. Over the years they have collected enough bones from the woods for an entire deer skeleton. The challenge this week is to put the skeleton together on a piece of plywood, with guidance from a teacher.

“Swamp shoes,” old sneakers students use for hikes, are lined up on railroad ties in front of the school, where they stay throughout the summer, rain or shine, night or day. When they go on a hike, everyone wears shirts, long pants, socks outside the pants, neckerchiefs and hats to keep the bugs out.

“We’re all about ‘you can do it’ here,” Mary Szeglowski said. “They have to get clothes on and off themselves.”

They help the little ones, but like to foster independence.

Parents drop children off at the big red door, where a staffer takes the child into the school, to make the transition easier on the child and parents. The Szeglowskis also believe in a healthy dose of “Vitamin N.”

“Parents do not understand that it’s healthy and good to say no to their children,” Mary Szeglowski said. “They tend to forget that children need to have to wait for things. They need to learn they can’t have everything they want right away.”

“We have to teach kids how to play. Kids used to come knowing how to play,” Dan Szeglowski said. “They sort of haven’t been alone in the world to bump their nose into the wall to figure out a lot of the things that kids who used to have three brothers and sisters came to school very well aware of.”

While Maher and Smith might find some bumps along the way, the lessons he learned in preschool will help guide their stewardship of the school.

“lt’s going to remain the same,” Maher said of the school. “We’re just going to work on giving it a face lift.”


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