Island preschool to close after almost four decades

Zoe Cheroke with The Barbie School’s class of 2013-14.  - Courtesy Photo
Zoe Cheroke with The Barbie School’s class of 2013-14.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

Zoe Cheroke, a longtime fixture in Vashon’s early childhood education scene, will close the doors of The Barbie School for good at the end of her school day on Thursday, June 12, when she retires after a 39-year career of teaching island preschoolers.

“I’m old, it’s time,” Cheroke said with a laugh in a recent interview with The Beachcomber. “My husband retired in January from the middle school; it’s just time.”

Cheroke, who moved to Vashon in 1971, taught at an alternative school in the city for one year and with the Seattle school district for three years before she was laid off. Unsure of what she would do next, a friend suggested that she start a preschool on the island.

“At first I wasn’t too interested,” Cheroke said, “but I thought about it for a bit and changed my mind.”

Initially running the school for 4- to 6-year-olds out of her home, she explained that the school’s physical space took a little time to evolve. There was a move to someone’s barn, which Cheroke described as “interesting,” then a couple more moves before she and her husband built a permanent home for the school on their own property.

The school’s name is also something that evolved as a story of its own.

“My real name is Barbara, and people would call me ‘Barbie’ back then,” Cheroke said. “We didn’t actually name the school when it started, but when asked, the kids would always say, ‘Oh, I go to Barbie’s school.’ I liked it, I thought it was crazy and fun, so that’s what it became.”

Since the beginning, Cheroke said that she’s always had enough kids enrolled to keep the school open, though her class size has varied a great deal over the years. Last year she only had six students, which was the fewest enrolled since the early years. But this year she has had 10, which is a class size she likes, and there were some years she had two classes of 12 to 13 kids each.

“It’s a cycle,” Cheroke said. “The numbers dropped when we saw lots of people leaving the island, but they’re coming back up now as we’re seeing families moving back. At this point, I’m actually teaching the children of kids that I taught years ago.”

One thing that hasn’t changed much over her four decades of teaching, she said, is the kids. The only significant difference she’s seen is in the way that kids now understand and interact with nature and their environment, and that, she believes, has been influenced strongly by the island. Otherwise, she said with a smile, “The kids are the same.”

Cheroke’s best memories of her long career are centered on all of the families that she’s had the opportunity to know over time. Referring to them as incredible families, she said that they are people she wouldn’t have met otherwise.

“We’ve had so much love and effort from our families, amazing support over the years from so many wonderful people.”

One of those families is part of her own, as Cheroke welcomed her own granddaughter to The Barbie School this year, after her daughter and son-in-law, Danny Rock, moved to Vashon after Rock became the new principal of Vashon High School.

Of the preschool, she explained that the building will become a guest studio on their property, a place for music and to hang out with visitors and friends, and she plans on donating her teaching materials and supplies to a new island preschool that will be starting up soon.

“It’s been very fulfilling,” Cheroke said. “Not many people get to enjoy their job so much. I feel so lucky to have had such a fun career.”

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