Sue Britson, the founding executive director of Step One School in the Berkeley Hills, pictured in the 1980s. “Play provides so much freedom to think and act and care,” says Britson, who’s retiring after more than four decades at the school. Courtesy: Step One School

Forty-one years after co-founding the Step One School in the Berkeley Hills, Sue Britson is retiring.

The founding executive director of the popular 110-child preschool seems to have nailed down just the right way to keep students, parents, and teachers happy, successful and coming back.

Sue Britson. Courtesy: Step One School

It’s not unusual for teachers to spend the majority of their careers at Step One; seven of the 17 current teachers have been there more than two decades, including one, Zeena Cameron, who retired in 2019 after 33 years.

It’s also not unusual to run into a parent strapping their kid into a car seat in the five-minute loading zone who knew Britson back when they themself dawdled around the school. Like Mike Ouye, for example, who picked up his son Owen, 3, from care at the school on a sunny Friday evening. The 43-year-old was a member of Step One School’s second graduating class. And now as then, he said, Britson is a “wonderful and giving” educator passionate in her method of molding 2- to 6-year-old students to navigate through the world, and through the rest of their lives, with play- and project-based learning.

Britson co-founded Step One School with Lisa Sondin in 1981, and they used a model focusing on childhood development similar to laboratory schools, like the one she studied at in Mills College, where play is king. Play-based learning is enjoyable, unstructured play where kids get to make the decisions on how they’d like to play and navigate the playground through interactions with various other children.

Britson (far left) and a class of Step One students in 1982. Courtesy: Step One School

Step One kids play in the school’s small classrooms, in the outdoor play areas, on the nature trails surrounding the campus at 499 Spruce St., across the street from Dorothy Bolte Park.

Britson, 69, is a patient and very focused educator, whose mind is wholeheartedly consumed not only with the growth and development of children, but also with the development of staff and the school community.

Almost every single week for the last four decades, she’s been in the outdoor environment and seen a new use for the outdoor materials and equipment.

“Play provides so much freedom to think and act and care,” Britson said. “The ways that children initiate and develop their play involve every kind of learning. The opportunities for growth are endless.

“That’s one of the most beautiful things about play – its capacity for spontaneity and originality. It’s this coming up with ideas and carrying them out with others that develops each child’s unique mind. 

“Play feeds the soul and develops resilience, too. In a play-based program, teachers are facilitators and observers, the counselors and mentors, and the guides who set safe and equitable limits.

Britson studied psychology and child development at UC Berkeley and was hooked on working with kids. She then went to Mills College and received her master’s degree in Early Childhood Development and met Sondin.

“I was just fascinated in the young child,” she said.

Her approach to teaching and helping with her students’ development hasn’t changed much over the years, she said, but she said she and her staff are always open to and looking at new and different ways of working with children. A few years ago, the undeveloped hillside behind the school was turned into a natural learning spot, where kids could play in the dirt and commune with the trees.

“Play feeds the soul and develops resilience, too.” — Sue Britson

“There are the building blocks of life out there,” she said.

Among her favorite accomplishments, she said, have been her constant pushing for collaboration with staff and the board of the nonprofit school. She also is very fond of the school’s annual campout, which was a regular occurrence for 25 years before the pandemic.

“It was a very loved and treasured experience for the families with sing-alongs, campfires, cooking together,” she said. “That’s something a lot of the kids who are graduated remember specifically.”

Alyssa Girsang, a resident substitute teacher at Step One, who sent her own kids to the school, said Britson’s capacity for understanding the learning needs of children is unmatched.

“I look up to her on how she takes on everything,” Girsang said. “She has a grace and calm about her that moves through every decade, the pandemic, every change.”

After enrolling his three daughters in the program, Jim Van Huysse became a Step One board member in 2016, in part because he was inspired by Britson’s leadership.

“She’s modest but she’s really the heart of the school, in a way,” Van Huysse said. “She’s so kind and so very present. All the stuff that’s thrown at her, especially with the challenges we faced with COVID, she still makes time to connect with the little ones, makes sure the staff has what they need to be successful, and still bonds with the families.”

In Britson’s final years at Step One, she’s been working to secure her legacy.

In 2016, she co-led a $1.4 million campaign to build a teachers’ lounge with sweeping views of the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge and make other improvements to the school that hadn’t been updated since the 1950s.

And the school’s new $750,000 “Sue Britson Changemaker Fund” will let the school offer five kids per year free tuition for the next decade. Currently, 15% of children receive financial aid covering up to 50% of total tuition, which starts at $20,000 annually.

This new endeavor delights incoming executive director Susana Casher, who has held the role of program director at the school for nine years. Chosen after a national search, she has a master’s degree from Harvard in education and a bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies from UC Berkeley and has previously worked as a play therapist at Berkeley’s Habitot Children’s Museum. She said Britson’s legacy means she’s filling “humongous, incredible, inspiring shoes” and she couldn’t be more excited — even if it is a lot of nervous excitement.

The school is honoring Britson’s long tenure by gathering messages of gratitude from families and former students, and small reunions of school graduates who are now adults, by decade.

Although Britson faces daily challenges at the school — like constant pulls on her attention and what she calls “relentless interactions” throughout the day — she said she will most miss sitting with the children to sing and play drums, although that had also waned during the pandemic.

Britson said playing drums with students is one of the things she’ll miss most. Courtesy: Step One School

“In some ways, I’ll miss all of it,” she said, “but it’s really the people connection and in particular it’s the faculty and staff because they remain constant as whole families come and go. I’ll also miss the kids — their energy, their curiosity, their desire to learn and their openness and passion.”

Britson is still going to be involved with children and children’s advocacy, but this time in her home community in Richmond. She’ll also travel, “especially in California,” she said.

“I just have great memories of her,” former student Ouye said as he finished packing Owen and his things up in his car. “She’s very passionate about what she’s doing and driven to do her best. She put so much into the kids and the community; she deserves a good retirement.”

RSVP for a gathering this Friday, May 6, aimed at students who graduated between 1991 and 2001. Or join the invitation list for a final retirement party to be held on Sept. 17, 2022.

Laura Casey is a freelance writer covering Berkeley and the East Bay. A lifelong journalist, she has written for a number of local publications. She is also a full-time investigator at an East Bay law...