Following the last day of school in June, dozens of former students walked through the doors of Ecumenical Nursery School one last time.
They were there to say goodbye not only to the closing school, but to the woman who provided them with their first education.
For more than 30 years, Emily Gundersen was the Southold preschool’s head teacher. To understand the impact she had on the 3- and 4-year-olds who attended her program over the years, you simply needed to have been at the facility June 10.
“Dozens of students and their families were there and students now seniors in high school all chipped in and bought her a gift,” recalled parent Megan Collins, whose two oldest children attended the school. “She was the start of their future and they hadn’t forgotten her or how she inspired each and every one who was a part of her classroom.”
For her positive influence on the North Fork’s youth for more over more than three decades, Ms. Gundersen is The Suffolk Times’ 2016 Educator of the Year.
“She’s one of those teachers you come across once in a lifetime,” said parent Jessica Michaelis. “She’s dedicated, kind, loving, fun and cares about everyone that has walked through her school’s doors.”
Ecumenical Nursery School was established in 1970, first with locations in Mattituck and Cutchogue. Since 1984, it had also operated under Ms. Gundersen’s guidance from the basement of Southold’s First Presbyterian Church.
Due to dwindling enrollment, the Cutchogue location closed about 10 years ago, followed by Mattituck in 2015. With just seven children enrolled last year, Southold also closed.
Ms. Gundersen, whose daughter attended the school, said students flourished there from its inception.
“After a week of my daughter going here, she was reciting the Pledge of Allegiance when she saw the American flag in a bank,” she told The Suffolk Times in May.
She recalled a time when the school had two full classes and a waiting list, but with pre-K programs advancing at public schools and fewer young families living full-time on the North Fork, demand for the school was no longer present.
Even in leaner years, Ms. Gundersen and her teaching assistants continued to educate children through playtime and interaction with classmates.
“[Ms. Gundersen] has such a gift with children and the thought of her still brings tears to my eyes,” said Carrie Grattan, whose son was among the students in the school’s final class. “He was a shy boy in the beginning. His first year was one of great transition for him. She took him under her wing and he soared.”
Cathy Campbell, who served as a teaching assistant for most of Ms. Gundersen’s tenure at Ecumenical Nursery School, knows firsthand how challenging it can be for children and their parents to be separated in those formative years. Kindness and enthusiasm are the tools she saw her colleague use to comfort those families. Of course, fun was also a staple.
“The classes were filled with learning experiences that the kids still remember in their 30s, such as making ‘Stone Soup’ with a real stone,” Ms. Campbell recalled. “Emily has an innate understanding of the preschool child and has approached each class with sensitivity, creativity and an intuitive feeling for what is best for each child.”
Ms. Gundersen also organized extracurricular activities to bring families together outside school, planning beach and holiday parties and other events that connected dozens of local residents for generations.
“She was the foundation of education for hundreds of children,” said Amanda Czartosieski, one of nearly a dozen parents of former students who nominated Ms. Gundersen for this award. “She was the perfect balance of teacher and caregiver.”
Top file photo: Ecumenical Nursery School’s final class before the Southold preschool closed last year. Back row, from left: Cathy Campbell, Emily Gundersen and Liz Gordon. Front row: students Declan, Thomas, Mallaigh, Skylar and Sophia. (Credit: Sara Schabe)
2015: John Roslak
2014: Phillip ‘Skip’ Munisteri
2013: Al Edwards
2012: Daniel Goldfarb
2011: Major William Grigonis
2010: Jean Dempsey
2009: Robert Feger
2008: Charles Kozora
2007: Kathy Williams
2006: Dr. Stuart Rachlin
2005: Mattituck Fund for Students
2004: Ron McEvoy
2003: Chris Gallagher
2002: Brigitte Gibbons
2001: Barbara Ackerman
2000: Ruth Yoskovich
1999: Tom Brennan
1998: Peggy Dickerson
1997: Elizabeth Goldsmith
1996: Lee Ellwood
1995: Linda Gates
1994: Poppy Johnson
1993: Peggy Murphy
1992: Patricia Wall
1991: Charles Nephew
1990: Dennis Claire
1989: Bruno Brauner
1988: Winifred Billard
1987: Jim Christy