South Charlotte

Cotswold's Open Door School is turning 45

Open Door School, a nonprofit preschool at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte in Cotswold, is marking its 45th anniversary.

Established in 1966 by the late Sue Spayth Riley, a Unitarian, the school was one of the first racially-integrated weekday schools in Charlotte.

Today, ODS has about 105 students, ages 2-5.

The school's philosophy values peaceful conflict resolution, cooperation over competition, and diversity.

Sheila Locklear, who has taught at the school, recently became director. Locklear knew Riley and says she was a modest and humble educator who understood and respected children.

Affordability for parents was a concern of Riley's, and there is a scholarship fund in her memory, Locklear said.

A major focus at ODS is that children learn naturally and intuitively when exposed to different experiences and are allowed to make choices. The school follows some ideas of early 20th century education philosopher John Dewey and developmental theorists like pioneering Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget.

Amy McCarter, whose daughter Mabel, 3, attends the school, said the emphasis on "discovery-based learning" is part of the reason she selected ODS.

Mabel is McCarter's third child to enroll. McCarter, who volunteered in Mabel's class one recent morning, said she enjoys watching students' interactions and seeing them make decisions.

The ODS approach differs a bit from other preschools. Though the winter holidays just ended, children were insulated from the stressful hustle and bustle of the season during school hours. "We don't celebrate any holidays in the traditional way," said Locklear.

Locklear said holiday celebrations are best left to families. "We always want to honor what the families believe, but we just won't take it and make it part of our curriculum."

The school adopts Unitarian principles in a general way, but there are no religious teachings in the classroom.

Another feature of ODS is a woodworking shop, with a long history of safely guiding children in the use of supplies like wood and nails. There always is adult supervision present and precautions in place, like safety goggles. The idea is to demonstrate respect for work and authentic materials, but the class teaches some basic math and physics.

Locklear, 57, is enthusiastic about children's capabilities and early childhood education.

"I love understanding children. I love watching them grow and develop. I can often look at adults and imagine what they were like as children," she said.

Her late husband, Larry, was supportive of her career; she persuaded him to volunteer in the woodworking shop after he expressed good-natured skepticism.

"The one thing that drew us together was our love for children," Locklear said.

The school will host an open house for parents of prospective students 6:30 p.m. Feb. 7.

The school's annual spring festival, planned for May, will be dedicated to the school's anniversary.