SINCLAIRVILLE - When Margo Vento began teaching Cassadaga Valley pre-kindergarten classes in 1988, there weren't many other Chautauqua County school districts offering a similar program.
"Initially, the CV School Board approved funding the pre-k program for the first year, then applied for state funds to continue offering the classes..
"CV and Sherman Central were two of the first local school districts to receive these funds," Vento explained.
OBSERVER Photo by Joan Josephson
Standing before a flowering dogwood tree dedicated to Cassadaga Valley Central School’s first pre-kindergarten class are CV Teachers’ Association treasurer Gayle Wilcox, pre-k class teacher Margo Vento and her students, Allison Ames, a member of her last class and Ashley Lancaster, a member of the first class.
Since then, just about every school district in Chautauqua County offers pre-k classes for eligible 4-year-olds.
At Cassadaga Valley, the value of the program quickly became well-known and enrollment in the half-day classes grew accordingly.
Vento says she has kept a record of her students over the 20 years she taught pre-k at CV.
"I've had three, four and five members of the same families who were part of these classes," she says.
During the later years, when she meets these students again, she asks them what they remember about pre-k.
"A good number talk about the friends they made, the wooden blocks they played with and the play kitchen that stimulated their imagination," she says.
Those who were part of the class nine years ago also mention the song and dance routine "Tooty-Ta," written by early childhood educator Jean Feldman.
"I first learned about the song at a workshop and wanted to teach it to the students - they love the words and the dance routine which exercises their motor skills.
"Dr. Feldman is still teaching and sharing her extensive experience in early childhood development with those who work with young children," Vento says.
Even after retiring to move to Florida with her husband, Len Vento, who also retired as Fredonia Elementary Principal, Vento maintained her contacts with CV and her interest in early childhood education.
"When the students in my first class were graduating from high school in 2001, I told them I wanted to have a tree planted in memory of them and all the other pre-k students.
"So when I retired, I asked the CV Teachers' Association to purchase a tree for the gift they wanted to give me and plant it in memory of the pre-k classes," she says.
CVTA treasurer Gayle Wilcox did just that - she purchased a flowering dogwood and had it planted on the CVCS athletic field with a plaque denoting its dedication to the Class of 2001 and "all the others who followed."
It also contains the motto: "Learning Begins in the Early Years."
During her trip back north this summer, Vento invited Ashley Lancaster, a student in her first class, who is now attending pharmaceutical science classes at the University at Buffalo and Allison Ames, who was in the last class she taught and is about to begin her first grade studies, to pay a visit with her to the tree.
As they stood beside it, she said, "I hope this remains a lasting memory for all of us."