Casa dei Bambini, a preschool at 1215 O'Brien Drive in Menlo Park, is a hive of activity on weekdays.
Situated in the middle of the city's M-2 or "light industrial" area, the pastel-painted warehouse holds large classrooms, where 40 children ages 2-6 play and learn independently, following their interests and needs.
Some relax on the floor while others help themselves to whole-wheat bagels and banana slices at the buffet-style snack area. One little girl uses her whole arm in her brushstrokes on a painting project. Another small child in a Mandarin-English bilingual classroom colors and labels a map of the countries of South America. Meanwhile, gymnastics instructor "Ms. Melissa" sets up an indoor obstacle course to celebrate one child's birthday.
But all of that will come to a screeching halt at the end of the school year, according to a letter that the school's Director/CEO Sandra Balzaretti sent to the parents of the school on March 7. The school would be winding up a 10-year lease, and rent, she said, would quintuple.
And for the Balzaretti family, which runs the Casa dei Bambini school, a five-fold increase in rent will be a de facto eviction sentence for their Menlo Park Montessori preschool.
Ms. Balzaretti said that the proposed increase is $2.50 per square foot per month, up from 50 cents. For the 19,000-square-foot facility, that would mean a jump in monthly rent from $9,500 to about $47,000.
Casa dei Bambini, which started in Palo Alto in 1987, is a family-run school program now in its third generation of providing early education for local families.
Started by Sandra's mother Leonore, Sandra now directs the school, and her daughter, Desiree, who once attended the school, now teaches there. Her son, a financial analyst, helps manage the school's finances, as does her husband.
When they first leased the Menlo Park space in 2006, the location was a warehouse that had been previously operated by a clothing company. The vision, Ms. Balzaretti said, was to give kids generous space to play and grow. Anywhere else in Silicon Valley would be prohibitively expensive.
The Menlo Park preschool was a long time in the works. The new location was intended to relieve enrollment pressure at the school's original Palo Alto campus and reduce commute time for parents, who hailed from Menlo Park, Atherton, Woodside and Redwood City, said Sandra Balzaretti, the Palo Alto school's director. Come June, the Palo Alto school will remain open, she said, and the family will try to accommodate as many of the Menlo Park students and teachers at the Palo Alto location as possible.
Between 2006, when the Balzaretti family first sought a use permit from the city of Menlo Park for the O'Brien Drive location, and its opening in 2012, they faced down a multi-year lawsuit from local commercial real estate company Menlo Business Park, renovated and retrofitted the warehouse to be child-friendly, and even fought off a stigma to convince some families that bringing their kids across U.S. 101 to the city's warehouse district would be OK.
In 2006, the Balzarettis' proposal to open the school on O'Brien Drive went before Menlo Park's Planning Commission, which unanimously denied a use permit. The Balzaretti family appealed to the City Council, which reversed the decision and approved the permit in a 4-1 vote in February 2007.
In those city hearings, initial concerns came from landlords and business owners who said putting young kids in an industrial zone could spark health concerns and new safety regulations. Business owner John Tarlton of Menlo Business Park pushed for the application's denial, claiming the school should have to have an environmental impact review done because the building's purpose would change. He could not be reached for comment.
The arguments against the school's location, the council decided at the time, weren't sufficient deterrents. There were already a number of nearby schools in Belle Haven, there would be no real increase in traffic from the building's previous use and the city already had policies to contain potentially harmful substances and ban highly toxic chemicals near any of the schools.
Still, the Menlo Park Fire Protection District and Chamber of Commerce weighed in against the proposal. And ultimately, Menlo Business Park filed a lawsuit against the city for granting the school its use permit.
The case, Menlo Business Park v. The City of Menlo Park, ultimately reached California's 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco, which decided in 2010 that the school and city were not in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act. Plans for the school could move forward.
The lawsuit required paying hefty legal fees the Balzarettis struggled to meet. For the small preschool, it felt like a David-versus-Goliath battle.
"They had $150 million," said Sandra Balzaretti. "We didn't have $150,000 saved for a lawsuit."
Yet, as in the "parable of the loaves and the fishes," she said, they somehow continued to find the money to fight back.
After the school won the lawsuit, a number of retrofits and renovations had to be done. The facility shows that no kid-friendly detail has been neglected. Artwork by children's author Lisa Brown hangs from the hallways near the ground, so the kids can better view it, and there's an indoor playground.
Casa dei Bambini is a private Montessori preschool that has had children of 39 nationalities, said Ms. Balzaretti. Tuition generally ranges from $12,000 to $20,000 a year, paid over 10 installments, she said, but the school is flexible with families in need. The school has a Mandarin-English language program and Spanish and French lessons, gymnastics and music classes.
The Balzaretti family had been building relationships with their neighbors, and offered full-ride scholarships to children of mothers going through JobTrain programs across the street, though no one had taken up the offer yet.
Parents, some of whom were new to the United States and struggled to connect across a language barrier, became friends and came to support one another, she said.
"This is high intensity Silicon Valley," she said. It's not the Menlo Park of the past, she said, where "people drove station wagons and wore Birkenstocks." She said many mothers and fathers of her students have highly stresful jobs and work long hours. "Families already come in crisis. Having us should be an asset," she said.
"That's what's heartbreaking," she said. "We were just at the place where we were on the right path ... (now) we are going to be leaving."
The owner of the building, Joseph Sahyoun, said he likes the school and the family, but can't afford another 10 years of renting the building so far below market rate, especially now that he's 60 years old.
By not adjusting the rent to market rate, he said he has forfeited almost half a million dollars. He said he went to bat for the school in advocating for it to receive a permit from the city, and refused to sell when Mr. Tarlton offered to buy the building.
"Frankly, I should have told them not to go there in the first place. I would have been a half million dollars better (off) and nobody would be angry," he said.
"This comes as a shock," said Bilal Zuberi, parent of a 7-year-old daughter who recently graduated from the school and attends public school, and a 5-year-old son, who will graduate at the end of the year.
He said a lot of Montessori schools are at smaller facilities and don't offer children as much space. Ms. Balzaretti also said that of the private schools in Menlo Park that do offer spacious land, many are parochial and have a different educational approach.
"The rich," Mr. Zuberi said, "will find other solutions." But for the kids of parents who aren't so wealthy and possibly for teachers at the school, Casa dei Bambini may no longer be an option, he said.
Mukti Naik, a Menlo Park mother of two children, 4-year-old Amey, who has attended Casa dei Bambini for three years, and 1-year-old Anay, who would be starting the school next year, says she was shocked, too.
"I would want the city to get involved to try to work with the school to ... look for another option around here somewhere," she said.
Parent Carissa Carter, whose 3-year-old son attends the school, says the news is devastating.
"A little preschool can't compete with tech companies and rising values," she said. "Who is advocating for a healthy ecosystem in our city?"
She says she's planning an optional meeting at the end of the month to rally parents to come up with ideas to help. "Mostly I feel like I cannot stand by and watch this school get mowed over," she said.