While The Children’s School is in celebration and planning its move into facilities at First Baptist Church of Oak Park following months of searching, parents whose children attend First Baptist Preschool and Kindergarten, which currently inhabits the church’s school space, are wondering what this means for their children.
“I am concerned about this preschool moving forward, knowing the impact it has had on the community,” said Sarah Doherty, whose second child is currently enrolled at the preschool. “I am concerned it won’t exist five years from now.”
The Children’s School, a private school, is finishing up its last school year at the old St. Edmund school, 200 S. Oak Park Ave. It will be moving into the First Baptist Church building, 820 Ontario St. for the 2023-24 school year after its space in the former Catholic school was declared structurally unsafe.
Erika Reeder, parent of a preschooler, said finding out about the partnership through other sources was shocking.
“For a lot of us what came to mind was safety and security and the lack of transparency for us, the families who are there, and also the lack of respect towards teachers and staff working there,” Reeder said, adding the existence of the preschool was left out of all announcements made. “What came to mind right away was that they were going to shut down the school.”
David John Hailey, Jr., senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Oak Park, said the conversation between the church and The Children’s School began as a way to provide economic sustainability for the church and address the underutilization of the large building, which has been hard to maintain.
“We looked into many options including but not limited to selling the building, selling a portion of the building, or creating new covenant partnerships with other groups to create that revenue that was needed,” Hailey said. “Throughout this endeavor we have been praying that God would guide us in that. On Feb. 9 we believe God answered our prayers by introducing First Baptist to The Children’s School of Oak Park.”
Hailey said a partnership with another education group seemed like “the perfect fit.”
According to Hailey, the commencement date of the “covenant partnership,” as First Baptist does not hold leases as a 501(c)(3), would begin on Dec. 22, 2023, and run until 2033. However, the 10-year partnership might begin sooner depending on construction.
Doherty said she, along with other parents and even staff at the preschool, found out about the addition of the new school to the building through Wednesday Journal and social media outlets. Doherty said it was only after the fact that Hailey held a meeting for parents and staff to discuss the situation.
“They were experiencing and hearing about the stuff real time like we were,” Doherty said regarding the staff. According to Doherty, the meeting came after a state children’s agency and representatives from The Children’s School had begun looking at configurations for the new classrooms during school hours with teachers and children confused as to who was entering their classrooms. “The upsetting part for me is that it didn’t show care and concern for the existing community. The preschool and kindergarten has been in existence for 97 years.”
Hailey denied those claims and said all the appropriate parties were made aware.
“That was certainly shared, about when things would happen,” Hailey said.
Hailey said conversations with the new school began Feb. 10 and the board chair for the preschool was told about the possibility of the partnership. The Children’s School representatives visited First Baptist facilities on Feb. 14 for the first time and representatives from the preschool and the church continued the conversation on Feb. 21 at The Children’s School.
“The preschool has been involved in this conversion since basically one day after the initial conversation,” Hailey said, adding this included preschool director Barbara Branch.
First Baptist Preschool did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
According to Hailey the church had not expected news to break through social media as the agreement was not signed on June 7, 2023, which is why parents were not notified. Wednesday Journal received a news release for immediate release announcing the partnership on June 2.
“I am not fundamentally opposed to another school being there,” Doherty said. “But the fact that there was no consultation or being brought into the discussion, especially when you put a deposit down in early May, if people didn’t want to keep their children there, you are at a point where most preschools are filled already when we are finding out two months later.”
According to multiple parents, during the meeting Hailey was upfront about the reasoning behind agreeing to the partnership with the new school: First Baptist Church needed the money.
“When this opportunity arose, we saw it as an opportunity to completely fill our building and also as a way to provide financial sustainability so that we can continue to create a safe, warm environment for our church, our congregation, for our preschool and kindergarten and our other covenant partners like The Children’s School,” Hailey said.
Hailey declined to provide information on how much the partnership with the new school will bring in financially.
A big concern has been the restructuring of space, which has the preschool losing a few of their classrooms by next summer. According to Doherty, The Children’s School seemed to have been able to “cherry-pick” the spaces they wanted.
“We talked a lot about the floor plans to make sure there was space for all of the groups involved to have spaces for their programs,” Hailey said, adding all changes were made with the unanimous vote of the preschool board, the church’s leadership team, and congregation. “We agreed that all of these changes will be appropriate.”
Hailey said space will not be an issue and by moving into their new classrooms, the preschool will have enough space for current students and have the room to grow back to pre-pandemic numbers.
Hailey said there will be some demolition of walls to create larger rooms, new plumbing, new electrical, and new flooring will also be needed alongside other things. They hope construction can begin in late July to early August. Renovations will be done in two phases and the preschool will also see the benefits of those renovations in their spaces. No changes to the preschool will be made in the first year, said Hailey.
“Some of the construction done in that second phase will be renovations for the preschool and kindergarten,” Hailey said.
Reeder said Hailey announced that two of the biggest rooms currently used by the preschool will be allocated to the new school.
“It is not very clear where the five rooms First Baptist will keep or how they are going to be conditioned for the students and teachers,” Reeder said.
While the two schools will need to be kept separate to follow state regulations, there will be an overlap of shared spaces, including the gymnasium, but with The Children’s School having a larger number of students, parents of the preschool are concerned their children will now have their time in those areas significantly reduced.
“It was a really attractive gym and when you have very active boy toddlers who can still get energy out when the weather is not good,” Doherty said. “That is a space they will want to utilize as well.”
According to Doherty, Hailey said there will be a person in charge of scheduling the building, but that person is a current employee of the new school. According to Doherty, the preschool will now be paying half of their salary.
“What is to say that the preschool will not continue to be edged out from the footprint we are already in,” Doherty said.
The Children’s School was not able to be reached for comment.
With First Baptist being one of the most affordable preschools in the area, Ivan Da Silva, whose three children attended the preschool, said he is nervous this is the first step in the gentrification of the preschool as the school currently has a very diverse student body, which he said can be rare to find in Oak Park.
“They are probably the last affordable preschool in Oak Park.” Da Silva said. “99 percent of the parents and the kids are immigrants, people of color, minorities. A lot of the kids come from neighboring cities, from Maywood, it is a high-quality school with affordable tuition. The church has to be careful. We have seen this in Oak Park, schools being kicked out, being gentrified, and that is my biggest fear.”
The Da Silva family said, as immigrants from South America, they felt unwelcomed at many preschools in the area.
“They have their arms open all the time,” Da Silva said, adding his kids were accepted to the preschool with no questions asked while other preschools wanted to test the children before allowing enrollment.
Hailey said he is thankful for the rich diversity seen through the church’s congregation as well as the students at the preschool.
“Our congregation is comprised of a large number of minorities and people of color in our church,” Hailey said. “That has always been a big part of who we have been. It is something that we value very much. I am saddened to hear that people would think that this new partnership would in any way tarnish that, but I know that in our hearts and in our conversations, the success of our preschool and our students there has always been on the forefront of our minds and these discussions.”
While parents have expressed their concerns that the ultimate end game is the closing, or at least the relocation of the preschool, Hailey said that is simply not true, as the preschool is not a separate entity from the church.
“We are very excited about this opportunity because it will allow us to maintain the preschool into the future,” Hailey said. “The reality is that if we were not able to bring in a new partner like this, we could not guarantee that First Baptist Preschool and Kindergarten would be around in 10 years or that First Baptist as a congregation would be around in 10 years. We really believe this has given us a new opportunity to build upon what good we have done so far and expand that with new partners, like The Children’s School.”