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OFS Executive Director and Founders

Dr. Dorothy Stewart

Dorothy Stewart was a teenager when she began her career in early childhood education, and she has never wavered in her passionate commitment to the importance of this work. Dorothy was just seventeen when she was offered a summer lead teacher position at the new Head Start early intervention program being developed in her hometown of Picayune, Mississippi.

It was at Head Start that Dorothy first saw the tremendous difference early intervention could make in the lives of young children. She saw these children from poverty-stricken rural Mississippi blossom in one short summer at Head Start, and she became convinced of the power of early education. Years later, research would begin to emerge confirming the extraordinary importance of the preschool years in influencing the mental and physical health of the human child.

Dorothy worked at Head Start for several years, then entered college and received her BS in Education from Boston University. After graduating, she returned to Mississippi as a consultant to Head Start. She traveled the backroads of Mississippi visiting preschool programs and training teachers. Later, she received her MA in Special Education and began to focus on children with special needs. Eventually she headed west and worked for Head Start in California. Dorothy married Bob Buhl (co-founder of Old Firehouse School) and began her doctoral work in early childhood education at the University of California, Berkeley.

During her doctoral studies, Dorothy began to focus on the importance of attachment, which later became the philosophical foundation of the primary caregiver model at Old Firehouse School. While researching her dissertation, The History of Childcare in California, she also noted the change in quality of care relative to the educational qualifications of caregivers, and how this related to poor compensation for early childhood education teachers. Dorothy’s work was nominated an outstanding dissertation at U.C. Berkeley’s School of Education.

After receiving her doctorate, Dorothy served as Adjunct Professor of Early Childhood Education at Sonoma State University for ten years. Working there with her graduate students, Dorothy studied The Reggio Emilia Approach, the Italian preschool and primary education philosophy upon which Old Firehouse School is based. This way of working with children, which honors their own points of view and helps them honor each other, seemed the best way to prepare children for democracy in the 21st century.

In 1996, Dorothy and Bob founded Lafayette Old Firehouse School. Mill Valley followed in 2004, and Walnut Creek opened in 2006. Dorothy’s fourfold interests in early childhood education are deeply embedded in both the guiding philosophy and the day-to-day operations of all three schools:

1. The importance of relationships in young children’s lives, which give them a lifelong sense of security and optimism.

2. The role that communication plays in young children’s ability to express their own ideas and to listen to those of others.

3. The effects of education, training, and compensation of teachers on the quality of care they give to children.

4. The emerging evidence of neurobiology regarding the influence of certain early experiences on brain development. 

Dorothy has served on Diablo Valley College’s Mentor Teacher Selection Committee, The Local Planning Council for the Contra Costa County Office of Education, The Contra Costa County Childcare Council, and The Berkeley Childcare Council, and is a member of a number of other professional and charitable organizations in the field of early childhood education. She is a frequent speaker at local and national organizations that serve young children. 

Dorothy and Bob raised their daughter Jackie in the Lamorinda area and understand both the pleasures and stresses of childrearing in this community.