Apple Tree Learning Center is all grown up.

The child-care facility, after-school program and preschool turned 20 years old this month.

The learning center got its start as Stowe Kids Company in January 1998 when Scot and Mary Lou Baraw began the program.

In 2000, Scot’s sister Sonja Raymond became co-owner and six years later Raymond bought her brother and sister-in-law out of the business.

By 2009, Apple Tree Learning Center’s classrooms were all under the same roof at Stowe Center Shops on the Mountain Road.

Today, Apple Tree Learning Center serves 120 families, said Nicole Walker, the school’s director. It has 24 staff members and seven classes, and serves children ages seven weeks to 12 years old.

There were only five or six families when the center opened in 1998, said Kathy Jones, a preschool teacher who’s been with Apple Tree since the very beginning.

Child care has changed a great deal in the last two decades, Jones said.

“The requests and expectations are very high,” Walker said. “We’re held to a lot of very high standards.”

Apple Tree Learning Center is part of the state pre-K partnership, meaning it has to meet state standards.

Along with expections, costs have also risen dramatically in 20 years, Walker said. She estimates staffing is at least 80 percent of the school’s overhead, and that doesn’t include rent and utilities. Apple Tree operates two buses and kids take lots of field trips, to Stowe Free Library, to go apple picking and swimming, to visit seniors at The Manor, and to ski at Stowe Mountain Resort.

Recently, the school took a field trip to the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich.

Students’ days are packed with free play, minor jobs and chores, snacks, storytime, and time outdoors.

Kids are also assessed four times per year, using a much more sophisticated system than when Jones started.

Back then, Jones was required to write up about a page on each student and send them to parents; now, teachers use a sophisticated online system that allows them to keep careful track of kids’ day-to-day progress, as well as scope out patterns in classrooms as a whole. Jones said being able to answer parents’ questions with specifics has been invaluable to her as a teacher.

Because child-care has become more rigorous and demanding, it can be harder to hire qualified professionals, said Raymond.

Jones holds a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education and elementary education from Johnson State College.

Amazing growth

Jones says Apple Tree has been amazing and she’s loved watching it grow, just like another one of her kids.

“It’s been such a great place. Every day is something new and something great. Wow,” she said, as she paused to look out the window and reflect.

“It’s a family. The staff, they’re all so happy to be with children, and all the things we do. It’s just a happy place, a happy environment to be in, and to watch it grow. It’s fun when you get the next child in the classroom, the sibling, and how different it is,” said Jones, who has become part of innumerable families during her time at Apple Tree.

Sometimes those kids make return visits.

Said Walker: “We had one drop by a note — it was probably about a year ago — that listed all of the teachers that she remembered, and what she remembered about them. It was very sweet.”

Jones was on that list.

“A friend of mine and I went to one of the graduation parties and we both looked at each other and said, ‘Wow, I feel like a rock star,’ because the students all looked around and said, ‘Kathy’s here!’ ” Jones said.

Apple Tree Learning Center’s longevity has helped it gain a reputation for being knowledgeable in the field. Kindergarten teachers reach out to Apple Tree teachers such as Jones to ask about students, and learning records. She meets with them at the beginning of the school year.

“People are really seeing the importance of early childhood education and that’s cool to see,” she said.

Jones’ son, Ian, 23, also has fond memories of the year he spent at Apple Tree. “It was pretty cool to have your mom as a preschool teacher.”

Ian remembered having only four or five classmates at the school, where he loved the playground and crawling into a nook for storytime.

He also can’t believe the school is 20 years old. “I am shocked. It’s just amazing, to think what happens in 20 years.”

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