Audrey Kearns will stop working and watch if a strange car pulls into the driveway of the school she owns and runs on Route 130. And pedestrians walking the highway just outside the perimeter of the school better keep moving.
Surveillance of the property is monitored with cameras, all doors are kept locked, and only authorized adults can pick up a child, checked against a consent list that’s strictly monitored, with parents called if there’s doubt about a pick-up.
In light of the Sandy Hook shootings last December and the removal of a young girl from a public school in Philadelphia in early January, Kearns said she and her staff must be ever-vigilant to unfamiliar people near her school.
“It’s part of the criteria that my staff has imbedded in them,” says Kearns, when asked about the ongoing debate about how to keep our schools safe. “When you are responsible for children, it’s the most important job in the world.”
For 12 years, Kearns, who grew up in Cinnaminson and majored in biology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, had an in-home childcare service for kids from infancy into kindergarten, while her four children were growing up.
Transformed from a retailer where satin and lace hung, to a school inhabited by dolls and trucks, the present site of Cinnamon Sticks used to be Silverman Modern Bridals.
In 1999, Kearns acquired the bridal salon building for $250,000. The property had a good amount of parking and a large yard for kids to romp, but the old building didn't meet local and state requirements for a school. So it was demolished.
“We built this place from the ground up ... It took us four years,” says Kearns. But it was worth every penny.
She opened on Sept. 2, 2003, with five children. In three months, she had a roster of 60. Today, her enrollment is at 92, (a nearly full school), with 30 school-aged kids attending the early morning and late afternoon programs. A Cinnaminson bus transports the children back and forth to the public school.
Part of her success, Kearns thinks, is that she and her staff try their best “to cater to whatever parents need.” It’s a family environment, and parents trust her.
“Each classroom has a daily agenda,” says Kearns, of the six rooms with tables, cubbies and individual bathrooms with pint-sized toilets. Bright white walls are painted with forest murals, and bold colors adorn the rooms. Two playgrounds—one for tots, the other for bigger kids—are filled with riding toys, balls and wagons.
Her team is made up of 18 employees, all women, many of whom have been with her since the school’s opening. Three are certified teachers, a few are part-time students, and all are certified in CPR.
On this winter afternoon, a 4-year-old girl with brown hair and ice-blue eyes hung onto Kearns’ hip, while the director gave a visitor a tour, past the classrooms, into the industrial kitchen, over to the office and out to the playground.
Some kids were scribbling on art pads, a few others were listening to music, and two boys were discussing the practicalities of a superhero flying.
“What were you writing today?" Kearns asks her little charge, still glued to her hip. "Are you going to show me?"
Turning to her visitor, Kearns says, "When you're with children, just walking through the school like this … they are learning something.”