Noe Valley Voice June 2008

Kids Report Eureka Learning Center Has 25 Candles

By Alice Amdur, Dominic Pacoe, Drew Eisland, Hannah Duane, Harper Corey, Jackson Moore, Lauren Ainslie, Liam O'Keefe, Margaret Altman, Meredith Roberts, Mia Cicciarrelli, Miles Raneri, Milla Limkin, Nate Tessler, Phoebe Frankel, and Rohini Govier--with Liz Weil

"Were there always spiders?""Are we going to have cake?"

Sixteen kindergartners at Eureka Learning Center gathered this spring to interview school founder Leslie Banta, in honor of the preschool's 25th birthday. Everybody sat upstairs at 464 Diamond Street, under a bumpy "popcorn" ceiling (which has been there from the start) and high above the yard (which, much to the children's amazement, had no deck, no slides, no swings, and no sandbox those many years ago).

Eureka Learning Center has grown up a lot in the past quarter-century. The garden has been tamed from overgrown to inviting. The school program has been pruned into manageable shape as well--from an all-day preschool, an after-school program for school-age kids, and a summer camp, to a far saner schedule of preschoolers and kindergartners only, from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Also gone are the days when Banta, along with now kindergarten head teacher Laura Banta (her sister-in-law), worked 24-hour shifts, cleaning and finishing a musty basement at 551 Eureka Street in preparation for the school to open in the fall of 1983.

Over the years, the school has expanded from one site to two. This past fall, Eureka's first grandchild--the son of Eryn Scott Ramirez, one of the original after-school students--walked through the front door. All in all, more than 700 kids--from Noe Valley and across the city--have enrolled since the program began.

In April, the pint-sized interviewers were taking their job very seriously.

"How did you feel when you started the school?" asked Meredith Roberts, age 5, younger sister of alumna Ellie.

"I remember feeling excited and a little scared, because it was something new and something I really wanted to do, but I wasn't quite sure how it was going to work out," Banta explained. "But I felt brave, and I did it, and that was a long time ago."

In 1972, Banta and her husband, John, had left their home in New York and moved to San Francisco to finish their college education. Before too long, they were getting their degrees (hers in early childhood education, his in journalism) and pooling their talents to raise daughter Jennifer, born in 1973, and son, Eric, who arrived four years later. Leslie taught in the public schools and John operated a print shop for a while before they scraped together the money to buy the $150,000 house on Eureka--a bundle at the time. The only way they could afford to follow their dreams--to own a house, watch their kids grow up, and open a preschool--was to do it all in the same building. "Getting a mortgage and getting the school licensed was a trailblazing experience, [because] it was the first program in San Francisco ever to be licensed for large-group family childcare. It was daunting," recalled Leslie Banta. In the first year, she had 15 preschoolers and seven school-age kids filling the home with running feet.

"Why did you want to make a school?" asked Rohini Govier, also 5, and also the second in her family to attend ELC.

"That's a good question," said Banta patiently, sitting in her tiny chair. "It's not easy! It takes a lot of work and a lot of time, and you have to really want to do this kind of work. And you know what? I did!"

Today, Banta and the eight teachers who work at the center provide tons of fun activities: games, songs, stories, the ABCs, art and science projects, even field trips to places like the Noe Valley Library and the Japanese Tea Garden. They also share memories of Great Moments in ELC History. "We used to hatch eggs every year in an incubator, and we had chicks, ducks, even peacocks at the school," said Banta. "One year, when we were waiting for the ducks to hatch, they hatched over Easter when the school was closed, so I called the families who lived close by, and they all came over on Easter Sunday to watch the eggs hatch together. We're all part of one another's families here."

After 20 minutes, the kid interviewers started to squirm, eager to get on with making giant sculptures of bugs.

Still, they managed to eke out a few more questions.

"How old were you when you started the school?"

"I was 32," said Banta (followed by kid editorializing: "Oh, that's old!").

The session closed with one of those questions young children ask that lead them into terrain well beyond their years: "How do you feel to have a school that's 25 years old?"

Banta sighed and smiled. "I feel very proud to have a school that's 25 years old. Sometimes I feel a little tired. But overall I feel very, very good. Twenty-five is a big birthday. And it was the same 25 years it took my own kids to grow up and become adults."

"What has been most fulfilling?" an adult couldn't help asking.

"The most fulfilling thing has been being able to be a part of the children's lives over such a long duration of time.... Working with kids when they're young is a very hopeful enterprise," Banta said. "To have a front row seat has been very nice."

Eureka Learning Center would love to hear from alumni and parents. Send your thoughts, wishes, and pictures to Reminiscences will then be posted on ELC's anniversary website, Commemorative T-shirts and book bags will be available for purchase through the website as well.