Steamboat Springs Sprites wearing smiles and slippers surround Nancy Spillane early on a Tuesday morning at Lowell Whiteman Primary. Her 5- to 7-year-old students are excited about learning in a warm and welcoming atmosphere, and Spillane is happy.
This is her vision of what a school should be.
Spillane is the head of school at Lowell Whiteman Primary, a role that requires her participation in such things as staff development, finances, curriculum, fund raising, discipline and student and parent happiness.
Spillane is also a part-time teacher, down from teaching full-time because her workload became too heavy doing three full-time jobs as one person.
But she certainly tried. Teaching is not just Spillane's job. It is her love.
Her passion for educating children on phonics or William Shakespeare is why handfuls of Steamboat Springs residents approached Spillane about starting another school for their children when she left Strawberry Park Elementary in 1993.
"Nancy sets out and does things," former student Elizabeth Findell said. "She thought she wanted to start a school and she did it. She teaches classes and runs the school and everything, but she's not one of those people you don't see. She always makes time to talk to the kids to see what's up. She makes it her business to make sure things are going well in all aspects of the school."
In some ways, that explains the dishevelment in her office, otherwise known as a smallish room with a couple windows, a large desk and memories neither she nor her students could ever discard.
"We just hoped people would come," Spillane said.
Ten years later, there is a waiting list at Lowell Whiteman Primary, as parents, children and the community have embraced Spillane, the staff and the school in its mission to inspire in each child a passion for learning.
Walk through the school's wooden front door, up the staircase lined with books and into the first classroom on the right. Inspiration and passion can be found in the littlest of students.
Tiny Claire Cohen, age 5, said she was a little scared on her first day of school, but Nancy (everyone at the school calls Spillane by her first name) calmed her fears, giving the class some ice cream and allowing the students to draw pictures.
Now, school is pretty fun. On a snowy, Tuesday morning not so long ago, Spillane's class learned about the blends "cl" and "fl" found in such words as clip, flip and Claire.
"She teaches a bunch of kids, so that's hard and she's doing a really good job," Cohen said.
Twenty-five years in any profession often takes its toll.
The creation of the Lowell Whiteman Primary School, on the other hand, appears to have done nothing but rejuvenate Spillane, who will turn 50 this summer.
"God gave her more energy than most people," friend Debbie Gooding said. "Nancy's always been an incredible educator. Kids are so turned on to learning here."
Gooding is also the director of admissions and student services at Lowell Whiteman Primary, a position she has held since the school opened 10 years ago. There wasn't much time to think about the possibility that the school might fail, Gooding said. There was too much excitement and planning going on.
"It was crazy," Spillane said. "It was hard. It was so much work. My family, God bless them. The first three years were really tough."
Nearly three years ago, after spending seven-and-a-half years housed in the police station, the Lowell Whiteman Primary School moved to its current residence on Oak Street next to St. Paul's Episcopal Church. Last Christmas, payments were completed on the building that looks more like a playhouse than a schoolhouse, finalizing Spillane's vision.
Of course, Spillane will never officially be done learning. She has successfully educated her three children, Johnny, Katie and Sam, but the changing faces and complexities in her classroom and in the Lowell Whiteman Primary School force her to adapt to the developmental needs of those enrolled.
Nancy Spillane's husband, Jim Spillane, understands the changing world of education. Prior to taking his current position at Mountain Resorts, he served as the headmaster at the Lowell Whiteman School, a private secondary school north of Steamboat.
"There aren't many teachers out there who can maintain that genuine passion for the work over that extended period of time," Jim Spillane said. "Nancy just happens to be one of those who has."