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Head for the Hill

Forty Years Ago, Ellen Cromwell Founded Georgetown Hill Early School, and it Continues to Produce Joyful, Eager Learners

Article by Lauri Gross

Photography by Jack Hartzman

Originally published in Potomac Lifestyle

Georgetown Hill Early School is a thriving nonprofit with 10 campuses and more than 300 employees serving 750 families and more than 1,000 students. Yet, to each individual student and each individual family, it feels like home. And that’s by design. The school was founded 40 years ago by Ellen Cromwell who was a pioneer in the then-new concept of preschool (as opposed to daycare or babysitting).

Ellen taught and directed preschool programs where children thrived in an environment that offered developmentally appropriate early education and loving care like they would receive at home. Children blossomed and became eager learners excited about life and friendships, as Ellen encouraged and celebrated play as the highest form of learning. In the program Ellen developed as a complement to the half-day public kindergarten program at Georgetown Hill Elementary School (now known as the Ivymount School in Potomac), children thrived—and parents noticed.

Ellen eventually secured state and private funding to build the first Georgetown Hill private preschool on Bells Mill Road in Potomac. Meanwhile, Ellen was also writing books. Her first, Feathers in My Cap: Early Reading through Experience, outlined her early literacy program and served as a first-of-its-kind practical guide for teachers of young children.  

In Ellen’s next two books, Quality Child Care: A Comprehensive Guide for Administrators and Teachers, and Nurturing Readiness in Early Childhood Education, she solidified the curriculum that Georgetown Hill uses today, known as PLAN: Play. Learning. Arts. Nurturing.

Georgetown Hill grew fast. In fact, it grew beyond Ellen’s desire to manage it as she always considered herself a teacher first. Ellen did keep teaching even as she opened additional Georgetown Hill locations one after another. She taught right up until she retired, about four years ago.

“She started handing off the leadership end of things long before she retired,” says Kristen, the youngest of Ellen’s four children.

Kristen was of preschool age when her mom founded Georgetown Hill, and she began her education there. As a high school student, Kristen worked as a teacher assistant and camp counselor at Georgetown Hill. Kristen now serves as the school’s COO. Peter, Kristen’s brother and second-youngest of the Cromwell kids, is now the school’s CEO.

Already 14 when the school first opened, Peter was too old to attend but found plenty of other ways to be involved. He played guitar as the school’s music specialist. He drove a bus. He shoveled snow.

“We are a consensus-oriented organization, and we always have been. We were a partnership the whole time,” Peter says. “It just sort of developed that way.” 

Peter and Kristen’s own children attended Georgetown Hill. It’s that kind of place.

“We have teachers here who attended here, too,” Kristen says. “It’s a full-circle family place.”

Across its 10 campuses, Georgetown Hill now includes programs for infants and toddlers, preschool for 2- and 3-year-olds, a pre-K program and a transitional kindergarten program, as well as before- and after-care for elementary-aged kids. And there are camps in summer and during winter and spring breaks. Programs vary by campus.

Georgetown Hill teachers are just as devoted as the students and families. The average teacher turnover rate in the field is about 30 percent. At Georgetown Hill, it’s about 5 percent.

“And a good chunk of that is due to retirement,” Peter says.

More than half the Georgetown Hill faculty has been on board for more than 10 years.

“This is crucial because our kids develop trusting relationships with teachers who will be there for them throughout their school year and beyond,” Kristen says.

Even as the bedrock principles remain constant at Georgetown Hill, things do evolve, such as the physical environment.

“All the campuses have completed the process of refreshing the interior,” Kristen says. “We’ve gone from more colorful to a more homelike and less school-feeling.”

The classrooms now feature a neutral color palette and natural materials and textures to create feelings of calm and safeness.

“The curriculum encourages children to celebrate and take care of each other and the natural world, so our teachers bring colors and elements of the outside in, whenever possible,” Kristen says.

The school’s focus on the children’s social-emotional development is evident throughout, as is the importance of early literacy. For instance, the school is filled with quality books.

“You might find architecture books in our block play area or cookbooks in our kitchen area,” Peter says.

The school encourages writing for purpose and incorporates lots of singing to teach rhyme and rhythm. Like every lesson at Georgetown Hill, math happens in a playful, theme-based approach, and there is also a focus on physical education, foreign language instruction and so much more.

“I have awfully good memories there. You don’t lose those. I am grateful that, at a school that I was instrumental in putting together, we still have some of the same teachers and specialists. It’s a love affair with anything you do where you can add a personal touch,” Ellen says.

Ellen is currently extending her personal touch to a second career as a children’s book author. Her stories burst with the joyful and kind spirit of young children; no doubt, inspired by the generations of real-life children who have passed through Georgetown Hill.

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