BRUNSWICK — After months of uncertainty that left school staff and board members fearful they would have to close their doors after serving a community for generations, Learning Land Nursery School has finally found a new home.

The Brunswick United Methodist Church, located at 320 Church Rd., is the new home of Learning Land Nursery School. (Hannah LaClaire/The Times Record)

The school, which had been operating out of the First Parish Church for more than 50 years, will open at the United Methodist Church in September. The First Parish Church will be repurposing the basement space that has housed the nursery school for so long after renovations.

In December, then-Executive Director Melinda Harper said the school had found a new home in Brunswick that was already set up as an educational space but declined to say where until she had notified students’ families.

Harper, though, left “to attend to some personal matters” at the end of January, according to board member Elizabeth Rancourt-Smith, and the previously mentioned new home never came to fruition.

“Finding Commercial property that is both affordable for a nonprofit and something that didn’t require a huge amount of construction to bring us to proper licensing, fire, and code enforcement guidelines was incredibly challenging,” Rancourt-Smith wrote in an email. “Finding a spot that met this criteria, in addition to being viable for business, that we could afford on a very limited budget, seemed next to impossible.”

Some organizations were willing to work with them, but there was not enough time to work out all the details before a decision needed to be made, she said, adding that the board is “grateful to the United Methodist Church for really working with us with expediency and extending that helping hand we needed to save our little school.”

Harper originally intended to expand the school’s 54-student enrollment offerings with additional classes, a full-day program and a summer program, setting a $75,000 fundraising goal.

With the change in leadership, a move to a shared-space, shortage of fundraising and the costs of renovations, facilities and the general unknowns, the “expansive programs were too much of a financial risk for us to take,” Rancourt-Smith said. “We changed our focus to maintaining what we’ve always done well and finding a home to suit a scaled-down version of our program, with a smaller student/teacher ratio, and a new option for an afternoon preschool session.” Total enrollment for next year maxes out at 43.

The rent at the United Methodist Church will be lower than that $1,250 that First Parish charged, but Rancourt-Smith declined to say by how much.

This is “proportional for us financially” because of the decreased enrollment numbers, she said.

Monthly tuition ranges from $150 for a two-day-a-week program to $290 for five days per week.

The “child-directed, teacher-facilitated,” school focuses on “play-based learning” and building social-emotional skills like how to listen, empathize and play well with other children, Harper said in December.

A 2018 study from the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that young children who attended center-based care had lower rates of emotional and relationship problems later in life than kids who were watched by a babysitter or family member. The study suggests that having to follow rules and getting additional supports in a school environment gave children a social and behavioral boost.

All the Learning Land teaching staff have worked there for at least 20 years, and their retention even in the face of change and uncertainty “is a huge benefit in a landscape of high turnover in early childhood education,” Rancourt-Smith said.

The original $75,000 fundraising goal has been reduced to about $37,000, $22,000 of which already has been raised.

“Most nursery schools and preschools that are not affiliated with a public school system are for profit. As a nonprofit, our focus is the child’s educational, social and emotional development and maintaining a staff and facility that accommodates this as best as we can, as opposed to any kind of financial gain,” she said, but “That balance is always challenging, even without any major costs looming.”

This year the school is offering an additional three-day afternoon class from 12:30-3 p.m., as well as an additional swim program available to students in the three-day program; an offering previously only available to kids in the four-day class. They will also offer enrichment activities like yoga, dance, foreign language, art, library visits and field trips, according to a news release.

Next year, the Brunswick School Department will roll out a public pre-K offering for 30 4-year-olds: a number they hope to expand to 120 by 2020. But Rancourt-Smith is not worried about the competition.

“I think we have a place that is another option for those students who don’t get into public pre-K but parents still want comparable option to prepare their children for a successful transition to Kindergarten,” she said. “This first year of pre-K in Brunswick is fairly limited, but even as it grows, there is still a place in our community for a program like ours, with experienced educators and a focus on play-based, whole brain learning.  We’ve never viewed public pre-K as something to compete against, but rather something we can live in tandem alongside in the early childhood landscape. As educators, we’re happy to see every child find a place they belong.”

An open house will be scheduled later in the summer for families interested in the space, and for prospective new families to tour the school and check out the program. Information will be posted on the school’s website and Facebook pages.

Anyone interested in donating can send contributions to Learning Land Nursery School P.O. Box 322 Brunswick, ME 04011

[email protected]

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