Many people probably are not aware that hidden on North Point Street in a two-story Marina flat is one of the most popular preschools in the area. Marina Tots is a program for children ranging in age from two to five that balances teacher- and self-directed activities. The preschool was one of the first in the area to offer a program two days a week for two-year-olds.
This year, the preschool is celebrating their 15-year anniversary. This boutique program is thriving with nearly three dozen children and a waiting list just as long. Building a local community is a big part of this program, and it truly has a neighborhood feel. Many families walk to the school or their parents are merchants on Chestnut Street.
The two-room school is cozy and loaded with toys, art supplies, and educational materials. It looks much like any other preschool, however; they have the benefit of a great backyard with a play structure and a flower and vegetable garden that is used as a teaching tool. In addition to planting flowers, the children are growing kale, broccoli and Swiss chard, which they will later get to eat. A big benefit of the location is it is just half a block from the Palace of Fine Arts and a few blocks off Chestnut Street, so you often see the children feeding the ducks, taking the bus to the Marina library, or exploring Crissy Field.
The woman behind the success of this neighborhood gem is Debbie Rivard. She is the school’s director and lives with her husband in the flat above the school. Both have deep roots here. Rivard is fourth generation Marina, along with her husband who was born and raised in the home where they live. They raised their two children in the Marina, and their daughter is now one of the teachers at the school.
Rivard attended St. Vincent de Paul, then started and ran the after-school program there for 10 years before opening Marina Tots. She started the school because she wanted “a safe, loving and nurturing neighborhood school. I wanted a school that fostered the same feeling of community that I grew up with,” Rivard said. She still keeps in touch with many of the friends she went to preschool with at the Moscone Recreation Center formerly known as Funston. They have seen many great families over the past decade and a half and still keep in touch with many of them. Rivard says she loves hearing from former families and often still receives Christmas cards and Mother’s Day cards from many of her former students.
Marina Tots has been fortunate in that they have never had to advertise or worry about enrollment. The success of the school has spread by word of mouth. It also does not hurt that they live on one of the most family-friendly streets in San Francisco. Currently there are 27 children that live on North Point Street alone, many of whom are either currently enrolled or have graduated from the program. Kelly Alonso has twin girls at the school and says, “We love the small class size and individual attention at Marina Tots. The teachers work on skills needed for kindergarten, while letting the kids have plenty of time playing, gardening and even learning Italian.”
Rivard is full of energy and passion for what she is doing and shows no signs of retiring anytime soon. “You can’t beat the commute. I get to walk downstairs everyday and do what I love.”