If you are a young Scandinavian parent searching for your child’s preschool in San Francisco, what do you do? The very question raises the difference between the values of such education here and there. Many U.S. parents want a knowledge and test-based school to get their child into a top elementary school; in Sweden parents want one that supports their values of social learning and childhood curiosity. Here they can choose among Montessori, Waldorf, or Reggio Emilio education which all value a child’s innate abilities.

Now there’s a choice; a decade ago there wasn’t. Then the young mothers remembered their own cherished preschool experience. They gathered at the Norwegian Seaman’s Church for a couple of hours every other week for their children to play with other toddlers amidst their mothers’ Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian conversations. Each child had its home language but appreciated those of the others.

These mothers dreamed of creating the kind of school they remembered while celebrating the diversity of San Francisco and the opportunities in its cosmopolitan Bay Area. The Scandinavian School was incorporated by Kristina Bünger and Annika McCrea in June 2002. Mimmi Skoglund, a Scandinavian teacher, was hired, and the school started with eleven children in September 2002 for two hours every Friday forenoon at Fort Mason. Interest in the program grew and within six months Skoglund opened a home day care center on the other four days as the school's limited hours allowed them to qualify under the State’s “Sunday School Exemption” policy. Two years later the school had 50 children enrolled.

A second teacher, Johanna Nordwall joined, ultimately becoming Assistant Director. Having outgrown their facility, Sofie Dolan found the easily accessible chapel where they are currently located. In several critical weeks the board adopted the site, began fund raising, and transformed the site into a school with much parent labor — just before the state examiners visited and approved the school. That left Open House: they began with thirteen children confirmed and ended with 20 children and four teachers. The full time Scandinavian School opened its doors in January 2005.

Today there are numerous Swedish schools in the US, but this school was the only full day, full immersion Scandinavian school in the US until last year. Now one in New Jersey has been inspired by San Francisco’s example; a Belgian Scandinavian school is first in the world. Adopting the Reggio Emilio pedagogy united to their nurturing Scandinavian values, the teachers both guide and document each child’s innate curiosity and creativity, leading to project-based learning resulting from the child’s explorations and discoveries.

School is a second home
Today the school serves preschool children aged two to five, attending five days per week, from 8am to 6pm. School is a second home where teachers also tuck in children for their naps, lovingly help them don or doff clothes, and, like moms, take time to provide a couple of nutritious snacks and a homemade lunch each day. Just as at home, meal times at school are a special time for everyone to come together and share the accomplishments, questions and issues of the day. At other times teachers sing and dance with the kids, celebrating each country’s holidays and festivals.

Another distinction is that Scandinavian preschools emphasize the environment. Rain or shine, every day these children spend lots of time outdoors as well as occasional treks to a park, because even in the city we live in nature. Summarizing Scandinavian values and love of nature, Swedish Consul General Barbro Osher quotes the proverb, “there’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.” And most importantly each of the teachers speaks her native language, reinforcing the language at home for most of the children as well as the culture and customs, traditions and holidays of each country, while demonstrating the values shared in common.

Children and adults think of the school more as a community or as an extended family. Most of the children have no other Scandinavian family here and often only one parent who is Scandinavian to continue the conversation at home. For this reason the school also developed adult language classes for spouses and others. After graduation most of the school’s alumni do very well in public, parochial, or private schools in the city. To maintain this community of alums, the school hosts quarterly “Cozy Friday” nights, where the kids reunite with all their friends for arts and crafts as well as a Scandinavian language movie with popcorn — and the parents have a welcome date alone. Another benefit of this school’s full-day structure is that now both parents are able to work, knowing that their kids are receiving the values and knowledge that they would impart, if the kids were at home.

The caliber and reputation of this unique school is rooted in the values of the parents’ ethnic heritage transplanted to the vitality and diversity of San Francisco. School will remain intimate even as the community and its various cultural programs grow. These kids have the best of both worlds: multilingual nurture and nature; a community celebrating their ethnic roots and pride in their home language; a refuge from US commercial culture emphasizing instead natural materials; learning to be curious and creative as a means to knowledge and sociability; and retaining childhood friendships even as they join other communities.

“For spreading Scandinavian culture through creative play and activities, and making the learning process both fun and enriching,” the Scandinavian School of San Francisco was awarded the Cultural Achievement award by the Swedish American Chamber of Commerce for San Francisco and the Silicon Valley at last year’s banquet. It is heartwarming to see how the mothers’ dreams have been fulfilled and continue to inspire younger generations.

By Ted Olsson

For more info, see The Scandinavian School, San Francisco