Image- Los Niños
Tom Whiting sings along with kids on graduation day at Los Niños Nursery School. Kyle Ludowitz/Review

In 1974, Tom Whiting was a kindergarten teacher in San Mateo. He had recently received custody of his 3-year-old son and was looking for a job that would allow him more time as a father. 

“I didn’t want to leave him in the care of others,” he said. “I thought, ‘Geez, he’s 3 years old. He should be with his old man.” 

Judy O’Leary was teaching at an elementary school in the Jefferson School District. She suggested the two start a school together because she wanted to do something that was more her own and reflected her philosophy.

“I had just quit teaching at a public school and it was heading in a direction I wasn’t excited about,” O’Leary said. Whiting agreed because he thought it would be the perfect environment for his young son.

And so Los Niños Nursery School was born. Forty-four years later, it’s closing its doors this summer.

The beginnings of the school were humble. “We started as a labor of love. We had no money, we just did it with energy,” he said. “We got a lot of help from the community, we got a lot of help from people just because they liked us, me and Judy, and they liked the project. The parents liked us, we had a real good start and then we slowly grew.”

“I thought it would be something we did for a few years before moving on to you know, real jobs,” O’Leary said. “But it ended up growing into something we both loved and were passionate about.” 

Whiting worked nights at restaurants for about 15 years in order to keep the school open.

Los Niños’ teaching philosophy has not changed in 44 years. The school is “play based,” meaning that young students spend time with teachers working through problems and logical-thinking exercises, but they also have plenty of time for play. They take walks to the beach, play dress-up, do art projects and play in the yard.

“It’s not academic-based by any means. The children have plenty of time, way too much time with that. They need lots of time to be very young children and just play,” Whiting said. “There’s nothing wrong with that.” 

The school started with three students in 1974 and this summer has a graduating class of 15. It has grown over the years, but Whiting still remembers the names of his first three students 44 years later. He has fond memories. 

Angie Del Sarto, parent of a Los Niños student said, “There are many great preschools out there, but the one thing that they do not have is Tom Whiting. Tom’s ability to engage with his students through play, song or dance helps bring out the best in his students.”

“Most of the best things in my life have happened right here,” Whiting said. “It has been an absolutely wonderful 44 years. I close with treasured memories.”

For the past several years Whiting has been asked about his plans for retirement. He always replied, “I don’t know, I’ll know when it’s time.” He was right, and this past fall he decided it was time.

“It’s sad. It’s very sad, but it’s time. Tom will be 75 this year and it’s time for him to retire,” O’Leary said.

Whiting has made it clear that he is not retiring because he has tired of the children or the school.

“I love coming to work and I would come to work for another year, easily, it would just be overdoing it,” he said. “I don’t want to take a chance of going past my used-by date. You don’t want to run out of the energy that was so positive. I’m going out on a very positive note.”

The school closed its doors on Friday. 

Whiting is now renovating the building and plans to rent it. The contents of the rooms, books and toys are being donated to a child care center in Moonridge that suffered from a flood this past year. 

Whiting considers himself fortunate to have been able to spend so much time with his family but he looks forward to spending more time with them after retirement.

“I just sort of knew that this is the year,” he said. “It just felt right.” 

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