Former schoolteacher opens her own ‘stress-free’ school in downtown Bristol


Union Leader Correspondent 

 — When former public schoolteacher Jennifer MacDonald started thinking about what kind of school she wanted for her young daughter, she envisioned a peaceful, stress-free environment: Kids learning at their own pace. A focus on discovery, not passing high-stakes tests. Kids delving deeply into subjects that fascinate them and learning to be compassionate, kind and in control of their own bodies.

Finding such a place proved to be more difficult than envisioning it. After several years of planning, dreaming and working, she has solved her quandary by opening her own school, Heart Centered Multi-Age, in downtown Bristol. It’s an extended day program from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., offering full-day kindergarten and before-care and after-care.

“I wanted to give kids more time in the day to learn through their senses and not be so focused on preparing for the tests. I saw a need. I wanted to provide kids a place where it was a little more calm and they could learn what they’re interested in,” MacDonald said.

MacDonald taught in public schools for nine years, but it wasn’t until the birth of her daughter that she started thinking about her ideal school. Inspiration came in the form of a parenting book by Susan Dermot called “Calm and Compassionate Children.”

“She (the author) said, ‘If you’re not happy with what’s out there for your kids, do something different,’” MacDonald remembered. “I said, ‘Why not?’” Deanna Sanschagrin of Bristol was among a group of moms who dreamed with MacDonald and encouraged her to open a school. Now Sanschagrin’s daughter Cora attends kindergarten there. “In the morning when you walk through the door, you just get the feeling of peace. It’s a comfortable environment. I liked how it was going to be smaller class sizes … and I just like the way Jen approaches the learning experience. It’s not just all by textbook. It’s more individualized based on the child’s needs,” Sanschagrin said.

Half-day kindergarten, requiring children to be picked up or dropped off in the middle of the work day, wasn’t a good option for her family, she said. “Having before- and after-care is huge for us,” she said. “My husband and I both have to travel to work. Even with after-school programs (at public schools), it just isn’t enough,.

Tucked between Gina’s Place cafe and Dancing Feet Studios on Pleasant Street, the school is in a formerly vacant building that once housed a karate studio and a bike shop. MacDonald, her husband Andrew, friends and students’ parents made over the old building, which MacDonald described as having lots of crooked angles and lime green walls before she and her crew painted the interior a buttery yellow and bright white. The space is a large, airy studio with painted wood floors and high ceilings.

“It took all summer,” she said of the renovations. “We worked pretty hard … lots of elbow grease.”

Five students, one of whom is MacDonald’s daughter Elle, attend the school, and all are kindergarteners. With a state license to educate kids ages 5 through 8 at the school, MacDonald hopes to grow and develop a strong kindergarten and first-grade program in her present location, then possibly expand to include second- and third-grade. Tuition is $6,000 for the 10-month school year.