The immediate future of the Church-in-the-Gardens Nursery School seems a lot clearer than it did weeks ago.
An email sent in late April to the parents of children at the school caused a stir after it mentioned that the school could close any day in the upcoming weeks. The email came more than a month after education director Pauline Elliott abruptly resigned.
Because there was not a succession plan for who would fill Elliott’s position, the Church-in-the-Gardens’ Board of Trustees took over that role.
Since Elliott’s departure, however, the board has failed to find new leadership in compliance with Department of Education and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene policies.
The school, located at 50 Ascan Avenue, then went past another May 1st deadline to hire a new director, which made it possible for more summonses, fines and potential closure.
The board has two options. One is to voluntarily close immediately and figure out a plan going forward, while the alternative is to remain open and find a new director.
On May 3, the board held a meeting with dozens of parents and teachers regarding the future of the school and its 39 students in the nursery and pre-K classes.
After weeks of being kept in the dark, the board made a commitment to families that the school won’t close - at least not before the end of the current school year.
“The board committed to us that they would keep the program going, but what that means we’re not entirely sure just yet,” said Kristina Zeh, whose child is in the nursery and enrolled for pre-K next fall. “We’re confident that the school will stay open for the remainder of the school year, but where the confidence is a little bit murky is what’s going to happen next year.”
Parents said a lack of communication from the school created confusion and chaos in the eight days between the email and the meeting.
“My son, who was in nursery and is now in the pre-K class, loves going to school,” said Shannon Walsh. “To hear, just before May, that there’s these big issues and they’re going to close the school was just like zero to ninety with no warning.
“The delivery of the information and where they were heading got there fast without giving proper background, so a lot of parents were left confused as to what was happening,” she added. “Before the meeting, they seemed like the children were the last thing on their minds, like they never took that into consideration.”
She questioned why this has become a problem almost 40 years after the school first opened.
Neither Walsh nor other parents noticed any underlying issues between Elliott and the school, though she said Elliott was energized to turn the pre-K into a full-day program.
“When she resigned, I don’t think they were ready for it and they didn’t know what to do,” Walsh said. “It’s not fair for the parents or the children to worry day to day about whether or not your child is going to school.
“I think if this pressure hadn’t been put on them, this program really would have ended, period,” Walsh added. “I think we would’ve been in a whole different situation, but because this community really stuck together, it made a big difference.”
While the board said they would search for a new director, Walsh believes the greater community has put the ball in motion to find a new director. She added that there are quite a few candidates who are interested in the position, and it’s now up to the board to make a decision.
“This is a city-funded program, so what’s the next step?” Walsh asked. “What is going to happen if the school can’t provide this service to children? There’s just a lot of unanswered questions.”
Parents also noted that there seems to be a disconnect between the teachers and the board, who they say haven’t been involved with the school until Elliott resigned.
“Imagine you’re a teacher and all of a sudden you’ve lost your leader and this entity you haven’t really worked with before steps in and takes over,” Zeh said. “It’s been a little rocky of a relationship.
“The whole transition has been tricky for the staff, but at the meeting the board said they would work to build a bridge of communication,” she added.
However, Danielle Lee said at the meeting the tension was obvious between the teachers and the board, adding that the “teachers seemed emotionally beat.”
“The teachers at the school are so wonderful and they are great with the kids,” said Lee, whose child is enrolled in the nursery class. “All the parents recognize how much our kids have developed and grown during the school year because of them. I’m not sure why they haven’t been treated with more respect.”
Some parents created an online petition to save the school, which has garnered over 250 signatures.
Elliott added that the school is an important part of the church as a community service and a financial resource.
Going forward, the board told parents that they would be more transparent and communicative about the situation.
“I don’t know if they were surprised by how tight-knit the community is and how many parents believe that this is a special program because it’s so small and nurturing,” Zeh added. “The board was very receptive and they said they would take into consideration everything we were saying in order to keep the school open.”
While the parents deemed the meeting positive and productive, they wished it happened sooner.
“The nursery school has a very special place in the community and offers children an intimate and family like environment that can’t be found easily,” Lee said. “It would be a shame to lose something so unique and precious to the community if it did close down.”