Mushroom Family Learning Center turns 50

Group of teachers at a preschool celebration
Mushroom Family Learning Center co-founders Margaret and Fred Doscher unveil a banner celebrating 50 years, with Learning Center board president Emily Greb, left, board president emeritus JoAnn Villa, second from right, and center director Gina Lipkin.

On a cool Steelers bye week Sunday afternoon, former Upper St. Clair residents Margaret and Fred Doscher chatted with old friends and passed around faded color photos, square with rounded corners, from the 1970s. Margaret and Fred wore dark blue sweatshirts with “Mushroom Family Learning Center” embroidered in the right corner. They’re pristine, but—hard to believe—they too are from the ’70s.

The Doschers are grandparents now, living in Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire. But they were welcomed back to Mt. Lebanon for a special occasion: the 50th anniversary carnival in celebration of the Mushroom Family Learning Center (MLFC), which they founded.

Fred Doscher, a retired Presbyterian minister, recalled that he and Margaret started visiting preschools when their son Galen was about 2 years old. They were disappointed by what they saw.

“We couldn’t find anything we wanted to take him to,” Fred recalled. The preschools were “too strict. Kids did as they were told.”

The Doschers had something else in mind: a place where they and their son could start to build a community, where play came first, and “the spirit of each child” would be recognized and nurtured, Fred said.

They placed a blind ad in the South Hills Advertiser, asking if others might be interested in their concept. Not long after that, more than 20 kids and their parents convened, first at the Doschers’ home, and then in a garage, which South Hills Community Baptist Church provided and parents renovated. It grew from there.

But why Mushroom? The school’s motto is “individual growth in a shared environment,” and as leaders have pointed out, that’s how mushrooms grow too. Or it may have come “when we were sick from eating mushroom pizza,” Fred said jokingly.

The Doschers stayed involved even as their children (Galen and their daughter Lisa) moved on to primary school. In 1977, MFLC relocated from Upper St. Clair to Mt. Lebanon, and set up in the Unitarian Universalist Church on Washington Road.

Fred, Margaret, and their kids left Pittsburgh in 1981, when Fred was called to a new ministry. He’s proud of what he and Margaret started, and he said they both enjoy their occasional visits: “In some ways it feels like we’ve never left.”

Over the next 30 years, Mushroom’s child-centered focus continued to attract parents from throughout the South Hills. By its 40th anniversary, in 2013, MFLC was a non-sectarian state accredited and licensed preschool and summer camp, with 125 students.

Fast forward 10 years—and watch out for that 2020 bump in the road. In 2015, MFLC moved to a larger space at Beth El Congregation on Cochran Road. Then came March of 2020. The school had to shut down due to COVID restrictions. After several months of offering online activities, they cautiously reopened in October of that year. Picture 112 preschoolers, all required to mask up.

“The kids were amazing,” said MFLC Director Gina Lipkin, then a long-term substitute teacher and volunteer. “I was so impressed. They were able to quickly adapt.

“A big part of it was that we had a lot of support from our board of directors and the families,” she added.

In 2021, Joan Harrison retired after 10 years as director. Lipkin, a former teacher and school librarian, as well as a parent of MFLC graduates, was named to replace her.

After her kids moved on to grade school, Lipkin added, “I never left because I loved this place so much.”

Now that the world has returned to a semblance of normal, so has MFLC. It offers half-day classes for children as young as 2 years old, who attend a total of four hours a week. “At that age, the idea is to get them comfortable with separating from their families and getting to meet other students,” Lipkin said.

The kids  have their own agendas, and as Lipkin said, teachers meet them where they are, while encouraging them to share in community. Older students can take part in the weekly Lunch Bunch, which includes some outdoor time, as well as supplemental Fun-Focused Friday programs like Pee-Wee Picasso, Foodie Fridays, and Mushroom Traveling Scientists.

A newer program, More Mushroom, on Thursday afternoons, offers socialization and more outdoor fun, for students age 4 and up.

Both Lipkin and Emily Greb, Mushroom’s board president, noted that the school is well into its second generation of students. Greb, then Emily Eveges, grew up on Markham Drive and attended Markham Elementary. Her younger sister, Katy, went to Mushroom, and now Greb’s kids, Julia and Connor, attend.

Greb estimated that most, if not all, current Mushroom teachers have been Mushroom parents. Her mother Mary is a former teacher.

“I am incredibly passionate about our school and the community it cultivates,” Greb said.

Fifty years on, Fred Doscher remembers Mushroom’s Magic Circle, where kids took turns sharing what was on their minds: “We were always centered on listening to children.”