Play Time

C alvin Hill is best known for his 12 seasons in the National Football League. But in New Haven, the star running back’s biggest fans may be preschoolers. That’s because in 1970, as a recent Yale graduate and a Dallas Cowboys player, Hill agreed to give his name to a new child care center. As one oft-told story goes, on a visit years later, Hill was asked by a little boy, “Why did your mother name you after a day care center?”

This year—a little late because of the pandemic—Calvin Hill Day Care Center is celebrating its 50th anniversary, having shepherded about 1,500 New Haven-area children through their preschool years. But Hill had nothing to do with the center’s founding. Rather, two Yale undergraduates in 1970 saw a need and decided it was their job to fill it.

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As Mary Pearl, class of ’72, remembers it, she and her classmate Kurt Schmoke, class of ’71, were complaining over lunch at Davenport College one day in 1970 that the members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), then on strike in the mail room, were privileged and ineffective. “Then we looked at each other and said, ‘Well, what are we doing? We’re criticizing, but we’re not coming up with anything,’” Pearl recalls.

The “something” they came up with—opening a day care for Yale union workers—was inspired by several factors. Pearl references a story in the Yale Daily News about a cafeteria worker who couldn’t afford reliable, quality child care. Schmoke’s roommate had worked in the dining hall alongside union workers and spoke often of their challenges, including child care. And the students had just the right mentors to fuel their spark: the heads of Davenport College, Seymour and Kitty Lustman. Kitty was the director of the Yale Child Study Center nursery school, and her husband was also invested in the issue. Schmoke had been recruited to attend Yale by Calvin Hill himself, a fellow native of Baltimore and, importantly, a well-loved figure both on and off campus. He made an end run around Hill’s agent and called the football star directly to ask him to support the project with his name.

During the May Day protests surrounding the Black Panthers trial that year, Davenport College ran a pop-up day care for protestors who showed up with small children. Pearl and Schmoke made sure that day care for union workers made the list of students’ demands for social justice. “Our request was so reasonable and logical that we got a lot of support from [faculty and staff] who wanted to get involved in some way in this tremendous unrest,” Pearl says.

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“Not knowing anything about anything,” Pearl spent the summer of 1970 fundraising, filling out licensing paperwork, ordering furniture, hiring a director and two teachers, setting up a board of directors that included union members and planning a curriculum with the help of the Lustmans. In the fall, Calvin Hill Day Care Center opened in the basement of St. Thomas More Church. One of Pearl’s tasks was to pick up hot lunches from the Pierson College dining hall and carry them across the street for the children to eat. Today, she can still name the “whole little cadre of students,” both undergrads and law students, who volunteered to get the center off the ground in its fledgling years.

In 1972, Calvin Hill moved into its current home, a former firehouse on Highland Street that Yale had been using to build theater sets. The university still owns the building and offers crucial support, including free rent, building maintenance and weekly consultations with a child psychiatrist and a nurse. The day care covers the rest of its costs through tuition and fundraising. Carla Horwitz, the center’s most influential director, took the helm in 1975 and retired in 2015. She transformed Calvin Hill from “a modest idea to really quite an important and effective school,” Schmoke says. Today, the day care runs a “threes” program, a preschool and a kindergarten, named for Kitty Lustman-Findling. It also serves as an observation hub for Yale students taking classes through the Child Study Center.

At Calvin Hill, children learn through age-appropriate, self-directed play. On one recent morning, under a deep blue sky and bold sunshine, plastic building pieces were laid out on one outdoor table, and baskets of toys were spread on a blanket on the ground. Children rode a big, circular swing and made circuits up and down the wide driveway on tricycles. A group of four-year-old boys played with matchbox cars, a set of heavy-duty cardboard tubes and several long, narrow building blocks like planks. Together, they built an elevated highway that ran from two low stumps down to the ground, using the tubes as pylons—a construction any grownup might build with the same elements. But they also used the tubes like giant silos to drop the cars into. One boy slipped two tubes over his arms like sleeves. The entire time, they conversed, negotiated and built their world without needing an adult to step in.

“Every activity we set out is sort of a window into their thinking: How are they figuring it out, how do they manage when it falls over?” explains Susan Taddei, the day care’s current director, who has served in nearly every role at Calvin Hill from college intern to teacher to parent to board member. “It’s all sort of an invitation. We set out the materials and kind of guide them to test these things out… but the initiative really starts with them.”

Like any 50-year-old organization, Calvin Hill has experienced some growing pains. Yale’s unions never embraced the project, and few families have come from the university’s blue collar ranks in recent years. In service of socioeconomic diversity, the day care offers a sliding scale for tuition. It also participates in the New Haven School Readiness Program.

At this milestone moment, Taddei credits both Horwitz and the Yale students who made their dream a reality. “People have so many good ideas,” she says, “but they don’t all last 50 years.”

Calvin Hill Day Care Center
& Kitty Lustman-Findling Kindergarten

150 Highland St, New Haven (map)
(203) 764-9350 | [email protected]
www.calvinhilldaycare.org

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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