On the sunlit patio of the church on Alpine Road, members gathered to eat cake and reminisce. In the fellowship hall were rows of boxes—class photos of 2-, 3- and 4-year olds going back more than half a century. Several of the young children pictured were outside with the others, now college students or recent graduates.
The celebration on July 14 commemorated the legacy of the Ladera Community Church Preschool, which closed last month after 53 years of operation.
Moderator Peter Sass, the lay leader of the church, spoke to the bittersweet feeling that defined the day. "The decision to close the preschool was not taken lightly, nor was it done hastily," he said. "Our love and commitment to children is woven into the fabric of this church and we are looking forward to its next expression, whatever that may be."
The preschool opened its doors in 1966, 12 years after the founding of the church. Citing a growing need for "nursery education," its founders established the school as an outreach of the church, operating on its grounds but governed by an independent board of parents and church members. The preschool was envisioned as "a safe place, rich in possibilities for exploration" where children could "grow, develop, and learn through play," its mission statement reads.
Families flocked there almost immediately. In the first three years, enrollment increased from four students to 66. These levels remained steady in the decades that followed, with long waiting lists many years, according to the preschool's annual reports.
Ladera Preschool was special to families for a number of reasons, says Sue Bartalo, a 15-year preschool board member and parent of three former attendees. One was the small class sizes—the average teacher-student ratio was one-to-five, she said. Ladera was also known as a good place for children with special needs, she added.
"[And they loved our teachers," Bartalo said. "The teachers were well-loved."
But one of the most unique aspects of the preschool, says Mia Clark, another longtime board member, was its programs for very young children. When Ladera opened, most preschools accepted only older, potty-trained kids, she noted. But because of the church's large property, Ladera offered classes for 2- and 2-year-olds, and had separate classrooms and play yards for each.
Having these separate, single-aged programs was crucial for the youngest students, says Linda Fenn, who taught the "2's" class for 12 years. "They grow so fast at that age," Fenn said. "When it's just the 2's, it gives them a chance to really feel confident in their peer group."
Confidence-building was a big part of the 2's program, said Fenn. For instance, she and her fellow teachers used the music of Fred Rogers on a daily basis. "So many of the songs were meaningful to that age group. It spoke to their anxieties; it taught them to be brave," she said. "They would line up on the counter where the CD player was, and lean in to hear his words."
For the older kids, there was a similar focus on "social and emotional growth," says Jennifer Pilling, another well-loved teacher who taught in the 4's class. Pilling started working with the preschool while in college, and ended up teaching there for 32 years.
"I never expected to stay that long," she said. "I loved it. I never left."
Like the rest of the preschool, the 4's program was focused on play-based learning, Pilling says. While certain parents began pushing for greater pre-K preparation in recent years, the teachers and the board remained committed to this approach. "[I think formal education comes soon enough," Pilling said. "You have to be emotionally available to learn. We try to do it in a fun way, where it's not a stress situation."
One way they did this was by bringing in guest teachers such as church member Linda Drey-Nightingale, affectionately called "Science Teacher Linda," who was known for her interactive lessons on the wonders of life.
"She'd bring in big a jar of dirt from her garden that had worms and salamanders and newts," Pilling recalled. "Teachers like her brought so much to the program."
But although the preschool was thriving, the church decided last year that it could no longer oversee the program. "We came to the recognition that the model of governance was no longer sustainable for us," said Sass. The preschool board required a majority of church members, and there weren't enough volunteers available, he explained. Last October, the church voted to close the school.
Sass says the church recognizes the community need for early childhood programs, however, and hopes to find a way to address that need in the future. "I do think a privately-run preschool may be the next thing," he said, adding, "if we did that, we'd want that organization to be consistent with the values of our church."
But for now, he said, "our focus has been to really honor everyone who contributed over 53 years."
Pilling, for one, says she'll come away with many fond memories. "I think I'll remember every face, every student," she said. "They all come in with a great sense of curiosity. Most kids—they loved coming to school."