I’m going to tell you the story of how and why, 32 years ago, this congregation started the Yorktown Presbyterian Preschool, how YPP grew and flourished, and why we today both celebrate and mark the end of this ministry. Then, I am going to offer up a congregational challenge.
During the early and mid-1980’s, this church leased classrooms to a private, for-profit preschool. While this had a positive impact on our church budget, the tenant relationship was, to say the least, challenging, and concerns were raised that the preschool’s educational approach did not complement our congregation’s values and understanding of how to nurture young children and families. These observations were shared among members of the Education and Nurture Commission who began a process of prayerful discussions. They felt that the Holy Spirit was nudging them to do something to address the needs of families with young children. With the approval of Session, a task force was established which began a two-year process of study, research and Biblically-grounded discernment about how we, as a congregation, might better meet the needs of young children and families within our congregation and the community. The task force took field trips to visit nursery schools and day care centers in and around Yorktown, researched the daycare and preschool certification and licensing regulations, took surveys and opinions, and they listened. The outcome was to recommend to Session a new ministry for young children and families through the founding of a parent-cooperative preschool modeled after the Circle School in Croton. This was to be an active part of this church’s ministry, and to further reinforce that, it was to be named the Yorktown Presbyterian Preschool. A cooperative model was chosen to keep the program as affordable as possible for young families and because it was believed that a cooperative model would most clearly welcome and support parents into a wholistic, family-centered early childhood experience. YPP would be a play-based and developmentally appropriate place where a family’s faith traditions would be supported and encouraged and freely discussed. A daily prayer would be offered at snack time. Oversight would happen through a Board which was always to be chaired by a church member, with a parent rep from each class and with a church member to match each parent representative, one of whom would be a liaison with the Session through the Education Commission. It was the intention that the church would always maintain the deciding vote on the Board.
In the spring of 1987, the search for a director/teacher began. Connie Stringer was hired, the first Board was established and the very first class of both 3- and 4-year old children was registered for September. In that first class, 4 out of those 7 or 8 children came from this congregation: Christina Gaetani, Drew Lodewick, DJ Keith and Bryce Kaufman. That first board included Carol Gaetani, (chair), Karen Mancke (treasurer), Gail Kaufman (parent member) and me (liaison to the Education Commission).
From the start, YPP earned an excellent reputation as a very happy, child-centered place where play, and not worksheets, were understood to be the basis for learning. There was music and movement and dressing up, learning how to share and to take turns and to “Pass the crackers, please.” There were field trips to apple orchards, the library and the dentist. There was hatching of chicks and butterflies and visits from the nature center. Parents or grandparents or special aunties were always welcomed and involved in whatever ways they could be.
Over the years YPP flourished and grew to a point where it would typically have a waiting list for a coveted spot in one of its classes. Local elementary school teachers knew that children coming out of YPP were well prepared for the next steps in their formal education.
But, times change. In the past, many of YPP’s kids came from this church. The last child from this congregation enrolled at YPP is now 8. It has become increasingly more difficult to find church members interested in or willing to serve on the Board, and currently no one is liaison with the Session. The connections felt and shown by this congregation have grown weak.
Times change. We assume that many young families today are looking for different models of preschool and childcare for their children that better accommodate the realities of working parents with demanding work schedules.
Times change. Our world feels less safe. Sadly, last year seemed to bring out the worst in a few of the parents at the expense of pastoral, staff and leadership time, energy, happiness and money.
Times change. To feel safe, today the doors are always locked and alarmed with cameras rolling. Now YPP is even more separate from the rest of the church.
Times change. Connie Stringer retired as director after 25 years and was succeeded by Lisa Eliasson for 5 years before she moved south. We have been blessed for the last 2 years to have Betsy Alberty as our director and one of the teachers. Betsy is greatly loved and has done an excellent job through some very challenging times. However, changing demographics, the availability of tuition- free universal PreK, and the changing needs of families have resulted in fluctuations in enrollment and budget deficits.
In the end, the YPP Evaluation team and the Session realized that times really have changed, as has the current sustainability of YPP. YPP is running in the red and we, the church, seem no longer to have the passion or interest or investment of willing time and talent for a ministry to young children and their families called Yorktown Presbyterian Preschool. This is why, after much difficult reflection and discernment, and with great sadness, the Session decided that the time had come to close YPP.
However, just because YPP as a ministry of this church is coming to an end doesn’t mean that we cannot celebrate the commitment of so many in this church who made YPP a faithful ministry or the positive difference this ministry made in people’s lives and in our community. Today we have much to celebrate and give thanks for. Three decades ago, a group of people from this church looked at our community and saw a need. They asked, “How can we minister to young children and their parents?” YPP was this church’s answer to that question for over 30 years. What we need to hear God say to us today is “Well done” and to give thanks for this wonderful ministry that has had such a positive impact on many children’s and families’ lives.
Now, here is our challenge:
As a church we are still called to minister to the needs of young children and families.
Yorktown Presbyterian Preschool may no longer be the answer to the question of “how” we do it. But that doesn’t mean we stop looking around our congregation and our community, listening, searching for the next way forward, asking, “Where is the Spirit leading us next? Where is the Spirit leading us now?”
Paraphrasing one of this congregation’s favorite hymns (“Here I Am, Lord”): “Here we are, Lord!” How will FPCY, how will WE, continue to be a church family that reaches out to, commits to, and nurtures young children and families?