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Nursery Foundation pre-school program closing after 67 years

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon Beset by dwindling enrollment, cuts in government funding and free competition, the Nursery Foundation will shut down its long-time pre-school program in the Central West End on Thursday.

Founded in 1946 as one of the first integrated nursery schools in the St. Louis area, it had seen dwindling enrollment in recent years, from a peak of close to 100 two years ago down to just more than half of that in recent weeks.

A big part of the decline, executive director Terri Olack told the Beacon, came when the St. Louis Public Schools began its free pre-school program a couple of years ago.

Add to that cuts in funding from the state and from the Head Start program as a result of the federal government sequestration, she said, and the combination was too much for the program to overcome.

“Prior to the end of February,” Olack said, “we kept thinking we could do things to improve. We could do fund raisers, or we could do more advertising to attract more students. Then when we got information about what the cuts would be, it seemed impossible to do enough to save us.

“We just kept trying to hold on for as long as we possibly could. It really kind of hit us in the face when the sequestration became inevitable. It seemed like we were climbing a mountain that kept getting bigger, and we were not making any headway.”

The Nursery Foundation charges parents based on a sliding scale that Olack said most recently has ranged from $5 a week a child up to $70. It has had an annual budget of just under $1 million, and its staff is now 19 people, down from 26 in recent years.

For a long time, the Nursery Foundation was the sole recipient of funds from the Greater St. Louis Book Fair. But since 2000, Olack said, the fair has been a separate organization, and the pre-school’s share of its profits has fallen; last year, she said, the school got no money from the fair at all.

In 2011, friction between the two organizations led to a lawsuit filed by the Nursery Foundation. It claimed that the fair had damaged the nursery school because of dwindling contributions, and it sought to regain the name and the rights to the book fair because, it claimed, the event was not being run properly. Several months later, both groups said the issue had been solved amicably, but no details were released.

Olack said one of the biggest factors that led to the demise of the Nursery Foundation was the free pre-school program begun by the St. Louis Public Schools as a result of a large windfall from the desegregation program.

“We’ve had a lot of competition from the free program,” she said. “When you’re a single parent trying to put food on the table, a free program outweighs a quality program.”

When the school system began its program, Olack added, she tried to forge a cooperative working arrangement, but nothing came of the effort.

“We do it well,” she said. “St. Louis Public Schools started its pre-school on what seems to be a whim. For me, the better solution would have been for them to reach out to programs such as ours to see if we could work together, so they could educate more children and not run people out of business.”

She said the United Way, another major funder of the Nursery Foundation, tried to facilitate talks about cooperation, “but that was something that no one in the public schools was interested in hearing. The only impression I got was they didn’t want to work with anybody else. They were going to do what they were going to do.”

Sheryl Davenport, executive director of early childhood education for the city schools, had a different take on the issue.

She told the Beacon that though the city schools expanded their free pre-school program with the desegregation money, they have had such education in every one of their schools for about 20 years. They currently enroll 2,150 students, ages 3 to 5, in 138 classrooms in 46 schools, she said.

Davenport said if they have students on waiting lists, they refer them to partners of the United Way and Head Start, so those agencies could have reached out to the Nursery Foundation.

She said the foundation has never contacted her office about working collaboratively. "I've never met any of their staff people," she said.

And contrary to what Olack said, Davenport said all of the teachers in the city schools' pre-school program are certified and all of their programs are licensed.

Pioneer in multiracial programs

The Nursery Foundation began in a church on North Euclid in the Central West End, founded by Francis “Queenie” Schiele to provide multiracial child care. It once had a second location on Market Street, but Olack said after its main facility moved to a large house at 1916 N. Euclid, the house was renovated, then razed in favor of a new building.

She said there is some debate about whether the program was the first integrated pre-school in the area, but if it wasn’t, it was a pioneer.

“You don’t find programs like ours that have been around for so many years,” she said. “That’s the sad part of it, the history that going to go down the tubes.

“It’s sad for the history we’re losing, sad for the families and children we have and sad for the community, because we’re such a fixture for the neighborhood.”

Schiele's son, Jim Schiele, said when he heard about the closing, he thought about what his mother's reaction would be and decided that she would understand that the times have changed.

"They had a great run," he said. "She was a forward-thinking and capable woman, and I think, although she would not be happy about the idea, she would have well understood that there would have been other schools coming along to offer this kind of early childhood education."

Noting her status as one of the first to offer an integrated experience for the children and their families, Schiele added:

"The Nursery Foundation not only filled a need but was a pioneering effort. That should never be forgotten. She did it very effectively, and she did it in the face of a lot of criticism in some quarters. But that never bothered her. She was determined to make that school a success.

"It was around long (enough) to make its impact and get a lot of kids started in their education."

Olack said parents were notified two weeks ago that the final day for the program would be this Thursday. She said several children have already left to go to other facilities, and enrollment has dropped to about 20.

Nothing really special is planned for the children on the last day, Olack said, though “we will have a little party of some sort. We won’t make it a sad day.”

Members of the staff plan to get together to mark the end of the era, she said.

“Everybody is really sad about the program – staff, parents, neighbors, the community,” she said. “I’ve had people calling me in the last month to express how sad they are.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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