Faith Child Development Center's pre-kindergarten class celebrated its graduation ceremony May 16. Colorful graduation hats decorated the bulletin board and graduation streamers hung from the ceiling.
But the mood was far from cheerful after the event, as the staff of the school shut its doors to students and their families for the last time.
On May 11, Faith Lutheran Church announced that Faith Child Development Center, which has offered classes for ages 2 through pre-k for 12 years, would not reopen next school year. It was a shock to families.
"We are there practically every day, all day," said Cindy Bray, a mother of three whose oldest started at the school three years ago and graduated Wednesday. "We had no idea, no inkling, that there was any problem or that the school was going to close. Graduation was somber and painful. Everyone is so hurt and devastated."
"It came without any warning," said Karen Wright Alvarez, a mother whose 2-year-old just completed his first year at the school. "It was very un-Christian like the way they handled it. You think they would have treated people better."
Parents and faculty were informed about the closing minutes before school started on May 11. Letters were later sent home explaining that, after "building over a period of years," according to John Blessing, president-servant leadership team for Faith Lutheran Church.
The decision to close was made at a meeting on May 10. The center's seven teachers and director were not available to comment, as they were still under contract.
"I feel like we're not getting any answers," Bray said. "(Blessing's) letter still didn't explain why."
Speaking Wednesday evening, Blessing said many factors led to the decision, from lower enrollment over the years to changes in state regulations. The church also felt the school would not be able to follow its original mission in today's society.
"When we first opened, the idea was to have an outreach to families in the community to the teachings of Christ," Blessing said. "When we first opened up for 2-year-olds, parents stayed for Bible study."
He said that the church looked at successful centers and found that today, with many parents both working, families want preschools to have longer hours or a day care associated with it.
"We want to be a homey outreach to parents and families," Blessing said. "This is the model we wanted to do, not what the community wanted."
The school had only 45 students registered for classes next year, the lowest number ever by this time of year, Blessing said. Perhaps the biggest decision to close was the lack of volunteers from the church to fill the FCDC board. Four members are needed. The board only has two.
"The job of working on the board, it was getting harder for us to staff," Blessing said. "You need a fully-staffed board to maintain this. All these things line up."
Blessing acknowledged there was no notice sent to families regarding the special meeting on May 10, as it was a voters' meeting. According to the church's May 6 bulletin, the issue discussed at the special voters' meeting had also been the topic at a meeting last November.
"We were doing everything we could to keep open," Blessing said. "It was very sad for us, too. We called a special meeting and laid it out to the congregation everything that needed to be done."
As preschools typically open enrollment for the following school year in January, many of the families that had enrolled with FCDC are now scrambling to find places for their children.
"We feel sorry for parents, teachers ... this is disruptive to a lot of people. I know they're hurt and I hear from them and my heart goes out to them," Blessing said. "None of us wanted to be here, but this is where we are. We had a good run."
"They do know that people have nowhere to go right now," Bray said. "During one of the critically developmental times in a child's life, they shut the doors on them."
"It's very sad it had to end this way," said Jennifer Hoey, who had two children at the school. "There are tons of kids without a school, teachers without schools and a selfish church with an empty basement."
Bray said that had they been informed earlier, the school's closing could have been a happy remembrance of 15 years.
"The ending could have been a celebration of all the good things the school has done instead of 'what in the world has just been done?' " Bray said. "People ... feel frustrated."