First Gilbert preschool class set to graduate in May

One by one, they walked through the preschool classroom door, unsure of what to expect. They stopped at the back of the classroom and looked around, from one side of the room to the next. They saw the youngest of Gilbert students sitting at tables, either coloring or playing or talking. They glanced to the front of the room and saw a familiar face in Heather Currans looking their way with a smile on her face and a tear in her eye.

And one by one, they smiled. They were back where it all began. Where they started it all, really.

They were the first. And they always will be.


Mrs. Currans simply doesn’t own a poker face. She often wears her emotions on her sleeve and communicates through radiating eyes and a warm and welcoming smile, which is perfect for a preschool teacher.

She did her best to hold it together — the emotions of the moment — when 18 of her former pupils walked through her classroom door on a bright Thursday morning just after the first bell had rung. Had her current students not already been in the room and needing her undivided attention, she almost certainly would have crumbled.

A few tears did slip down her cheek, first when senior Cam Stephens presented her with a floral arrangement from the Class of 2024. Hugs were quick but so heartfelt, both from teacher and student.

This was going to be a good morning.


In a few short weeks — seriously, where does the time go? — the Class of 2024 will say goodbye to the Gilbert Community School District. Like so many classes before, graduation will be celebratory, reflective, and emotional. The seniors will move on, and hopefully they’ll look back at their adolescent years with fond memories of what they experienced inside our halls and classrooms.

This class is special though, particularly to Currans and Gilbert Elementary Principal Staci Edwards. In the fall of 2010, 20 of this year’s graduates — Taylor Banning, Ashton Dodds, Henry Gustafson, Jackson Johnson, Kiera Miller, Kilee Miller, Taylor Puck, Eli Roske, Ian Roske, Toby Ruba, Cam Stephens, Elle Ellingson, Adalyn Gauck, Zach Heimer, Haley Loonan, Hope Marquette, Zain Mueller, Maddy Shannon, Sidney Steenhoek, and Dylan Terry — were a part of the first ever preschool class at Gilbert. Classmate Jacob Leedom, who tragically passed away this past fall, was also part of that special group.

The first Gilbert Elementary preschool class to graduate. Now that’s pretty special.

“The evolution of that particular class has been so fun to watch,” Edwards, who led the effort to implement the Early Childhood Program at Gilbert, said. “They’ve been in school the whole time I’ve been at Gilbert and I think about the change they’ve seen going from a district that had three buildings to four buildings, and then to a new (high school) building. It’s exciting to know in a bigger picture how much change can happen in really just the school lifetime of a kiddo here at Gilbert.”

With administration and community support, Edwards wrote the early childhood grant for state funding throughout the 2009-10 school year, and after receiving accreditation through NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children), Gilbert was ready to welcome its first class in the fall of 2010.

Currans, who had worked in the Ames school district for a number of years, applied and was hired to lead the new program at Gilbert Elementary. In the first year, she taught two sections of preschool — a morning class with 17 students and an afternoon class with 16 students.

“It was pretty exciting to be able to start a program from the ground up,” Currans said. “Everything from how you’re going to set up your room to what is your teaching philosophy going to be, to getting new things. And what I really loved is Staci is an early childhood person … she trusted me to make the decisions that I felt would be best to build the program. Anywhere I’ve ever worked, I’ve never had the kind of support from a principal or administrator that I have here. She was instrumental in getting the program here and making it what it is.”

Over the past 14 school years, approximately 750-800 students have taken part in Gilbert’s Early Childhood Program. So popular was the program that in 2012-13, another educator was hired and preschool increased to four sections — two in the morning and two in the afternoon. Kindergarten prep was added for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years, and then returned again in 2019-20 where it has remained since.


And that brings us back to last Thursday — April 11, 2024 — when some of those first students returned to where it all began.

After the initial shock of being in their first classroom, the 18 seniors quickly acclimated to their surroundings. After greetings with Currans, they gravitated toward the tables spread around the room to interact with this year’s preschool students.

Slowly, the memories began to flood back into their minds.

“I really couldn’t remember a lot of things off the top of my head, but being back in the classroom again made me remember all of the things we did,” Cam Stephens said. “It’s where I met all of the kids and a lot of them are my friends today.

“It was cool to be back, especially talking to Mrs. Currans because I’ve known her for so long. She was definitely a great teacher.”

Following the free time with the young students, the seniors joined the preschoolers on the carpet in the front of the room to get the day started. Many of the soon-to-be graduates nodded their heads, remembering the morning routine of checking the date and the weather outside. Those are happy memories, but there was also a bit of melancholy at the realization of just how fast the entire school experience went.

“Mrs. Currans has seen us all grow up and be who we are now, so there is a lot of nostalgia for that for sure,” Elle Ellingson said. “But it was also kind of sad being back there. To be back there and see all of the little kids … seeing how much life they have to go through and learn, it’s sad that it went by so fast, but also beautiful to think about.”

Zain Mueller wore a perpetual grin on his face throughout the morning. The energy and enthusiasm of the preschoolers was infectious and made it impossible for the seniors not to see the joy.

“It’s fun to see them be happy all of the time,” Mueller said. “I was definitely thinking back to my preschool and elementary memories, and it was fun to be in Mrs. Currans’ room again. She was definitely the best preschool teacher you could ask for. She was always so sweet and helpful.”

Mrs. Currans felt the affection from her former students, both through their expressions and their words. So see them all in her classroom again, to see what it meant to each of the seniors to return to where it all began, it will stay with her forever.

“It was incredible and I was blown away with how many of them came,” Mrs. Currans said, the emotion in her voice resonating through the cracks. “I know the things these kids have gone through and I know the accomplishments they’ve had, so to see them grow is just really neat. It meant so much to me to see all of them back here.”

Just like their entire academic careers at Gilbert, the 30 minutes in the classroom went by quickly. It was time for the seniors to leave, to head to their own building and prepare for a day of learning.

But not before they made one last stop.

The seniors went out the back door of the classroom and headed to the playground for one last trip down slide mountain. There were laughs and even a few screams as, one by one, they flew down one of the side slides.

“It doesn’t seem like 14 years ago I was in that classroom sitting on that carpet and writing my name in a workbook,” Stephens said. “It definitely goes by really fast.”

It sure does.