The 4-year-olds buzz around the brightly decorated preschool classroom, zooming from station to station.Two students paint pictures of the yellow and purple tulips that are displayed in a vase on a table. Another child sits in front of a tray of plastic toy dinosaurs and reptiles, examining them closely under a magnifying glass. Meanwhile, a few others work on alphabet recognition exercises with a parent volunteer.
The calm voice that resonates through it all is that of teacher Maria Lattanzi. One-by-one, she summons each child up to her station. She takes their hand, gently plops it down into a tray of bright yellow paint, then presses the tiny palm and fingers onto a piece of white construction paper.
The youngsters lift up their outstretched hand to peek at what they’ve created — the petals of a sunflower. The children then dunk the tips of their fingers into brown paint, quickly creating the dots that form its seeds.
At the Camas-Washougal Parent Co-op Preschool, all of these activities are part of a curriculum that encourages little minds to experience, grow and change.
Lattanzi, a member of the school’s staff for nearly three decades, helped design the curriculum for the 4-year-olds, in cooperation with the parents who run, maintain and oversee the school’s operations.
After teaching literally hundreds of children over the years, she will retire on May 22.
“It’s a really good age,” she said of the preschoolers. “I’m lucky to be their first teacher.”
The mother of three became a teacher at the C-W Co-op while her son Casey was attending the school. It was a job she initially intended to be temporary.
“Temporary turned into 27 years,” she said, smiling.
Over the years, her son Jacob also enrolled in the co-op program, in addition to several of her nieces and nephews. Two of her grandchildren are currently attending.
“It’s kind of a family tradition,” she said.
The parent cooperative preschool presents a unique opportunity for Lattanzi and its two other teachers — Elaine Walker and Heidi Nuce. Parents operate the school and help out daily in the classroom.
“It’s usually quite wonderful,” she explained, ”but it isn’t always easy.”
“The parents are very involved — they run the school,” she continued. “It’s a wonderful thing.”
Megan Notarte has been the C-W Co-op board president for three years. Her older son attended the preschool for two years, while her younger son is finishing his third year. She described Lattanzi and the other teachers as “the common thread that ties the school together.”
“Maria has been instrumental in curriculum and policy development, as well as day-to-day operations of the school,” Notarte said. “She’s a leader, and we’ve benefitted immensely from her expertise and experience.”
Lattanzi taught classes of 3-year-old students for approximately eight years before switching to the 4-year-olds. She currently teaches two classes of 16 students each.
“Maria runs a tight ship and I think the kids really respond well to the level of structure in the classroom,” Notarte said. “She’s always very focused on each individual child, and really takes the time to get to know them. My son had Maria for his last year of preschool, and still has fond memories of his time with her.”
Washougal resident Kara Prynne, who also serves on the preschool’s executive board and is next year’s president-elect, agrees.
“Maria is very organized and structured in her teaching style,” said the mother of four daughters. “Her students always know what to expect when they come to school each day and they love the routine.”
Lattanzi said much has changed since she first started teaching.
“At first it was puppets and teaching the kids their ABC’s,” she said. “Then it became so much more.”
Today, the curriculum has a broader, more in-depth focus. The students are taught the skills that will help them learn to read. They also focus on counting, science and social studies.
Lattanzi said teaching preschool-age students has been an amazing experience.
“They are open to new ideas and they are most definitely little sponges,” she said. “I love how you can see their enlightenment in everything we do with them. At first they might be frustrated, but when that light bulb goes on, it’s a magical moment. I’m going to miss that.”
Once the school year ends in May, Lattanzi’s “retirement” from teaching won’t be typical. She is actually moving on to pursue another career that is focused on the opposite end of the age spectrum.
In December 2012, Lattanzi, 55, earned a degree in human development with a certification in gerontology and aging from Washington State University-Vancouver. Her interest in the elderly began when she took a gerontology class, and studied the impacts of lifestyle on aging.
“I couldn’t get enough of it,” she said. “I took all of the classes I could to learn more about it. I find it fascinating. I want to help.”
That pursuit led to an internship for the State Department of Social and Health Services at the Agency on Aging and Disabilities. She conducted research for its information and assistance department, and served as a long-term care ombudsman, which had her visiting nursing homes, assisted living facilities and adult care homes to advocate for the residents to make sure they are being well-treated.
She is now hoping to find a job in social work that would have her advocating for the elderly and people with disabilities.On Saturday, the Camas-Washougal Co-op Preschool will host a reception in Lattanzi’s honor recognizing her years of service. Friends, family and past and present students are invited to attend. Lattanzi said she is anticipating the day with mixed emotions.
“Right now it’s all exciting, but it’s also a little scary,” she said of leaving the job and the people she has come to love. “I think it will be bittersweet. At the reception, when they are all there, it is going to hit home that this is the end.”