BY CLARA VAUGHN, Eastern Shore Post —
When Jean Steelman opened a private kindergarten in September 1973, she taught 15 students in the front room of her home.
Fifty years later, Belle Croft Preschool has grown into an Accomac institution, serving several generations in the school and daycare on Drummondtown Road.
“One of the things that is special is when you’re somewhere and you hear, ‘Oh, Miss Jean, is that you?’” Steelman said.
“For so many years, this was my focus and I knew when I got up in the morning exactly what I had to do,” she said.
Steelman taught in schools in Portsmouth, Chincoteague, Onancock, and Exmore before branching out to open her private kindergarten and preschool in 1973.
Formally named Belle Croft, many call it “Miss Jean’s.”
Public schools at the time did not have kindergarten, Steelman said, and her goal was to better prepare young children for elementary school.
“I just knew we needed a good kindergarten,” she said.
She opened Belle Croft with 15 students, who she taught in the former den of her home. Over the years, the school and daycare grew with the community’s needs.
Belle Croft expanded its hours from half- to full-days as more mothers entered the workforce, for example, and its focus shifted to daycare to meet growing child care needs on the Eastern Shore.
Other changes were more tangible, including several addition to Steelman’s home to accommodate growing rosters of students and staff.
Today, the preschool and daycare is licensed to serve 81 children and has anywhere from 60 to 70 on its grounds on a given day, said Lacen van Kleef, who bought Belle Croft with co-owner and co-director Merissa Zornes in 2021.
The duo taught at Metompkin Elementary School before connecting with Steelman.
“We had just heard through … parents of kids who we had taught that Miss Jean was looking to have someone or people continue on with what she was doing here, but hadn’t necessarily found the right fit,” van Kleef said.
“We noticed that our students were coming unprepared for school, so we knew that there was a big need in early childhood education,” Zornes said.
“It just fit,” she said of their meeting at Belle Croft.
Zornes and van Kleef worked as teachers under Steelman’s guidance their first summer before buying the preschool and daycare.
Some things, like technology, have changed since Belle Croft opened 50 years ago, while others have stayed the same, including morning warm-ups and blessings before lunch, van Kleef said.
“We’ve tried to keep some Belle Croft traditions alive while adding our own flair to things, too,” she said.
Steelman’s focus now is on preparing space for Belle Croft to expand. She is also working with rosters she saved dating to the 1970s to chart each of the institution’s 50 years.
“I’m so excited that we’re 50 years old and I’m still here to see it,” she said.
“It’s been a treasure all 50 years,” said Steelman.
Visit Belle Croft’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/bellecroftkids to learn more about the preschool and daycare.