STERLING – Sixteen exuberant 4- and 5-year-olds worked their way around the various activity stations at the YWCA of the Sauk Valley preschool class, switching from steely focus to bubbly conversation modes in a heartbeat.
The first hour of the class is usually devoted to small group activities. On Wednesday last week, some were making ornate ducks, complete with feathers, while others worked on small umbrellas in recognition of the week’s featured letter, U.
Micah was locked in on cutting Play-Doh into small pieces. After they dropped into a large plastic mixing bowl, he periodically stopped to stir the contents.
“I’m making cookies,” he said matter-of-factly. “This is sugar that I’m putting in now.” He said he was making M&M cookies – the kind he makes at home with his mom.
Micah finished his work in the kitchen and moved to the Lego station with some of his pals. It first appeared that Micah, Ethan and Dane were shooting for a landmark skyscraper, but it turned out to be strictly residential.
“This is gonna be a giant house, and all three of us are gonna live in it,” Ethan announced.
Unfortunately, the structure fell over and it was quickly declared a natural disaster.
“Oh my gosh,” Dane said with feigned horror. “A tornado came and just blew our house over.”
Meanwhile, Tynlee and Mary Margaret juggled several mini-projects, all the while engaging in some serious girl talk.
“I’m putting clothes on my baby; she’s freezing cold,” Tynlee said, while struggling to get the doll’s appendages into its outfit. Mary Margaret, in her game-day Packers garb, smiled and offered to help.
The program gives preschoolers enough freedom to be kids, but under the watchful eyes of staff and parents who rotate in every day to give plenty of direction and structure.
These happy kids appear to thrive in the environment that is preparing them for next year’s leap into kindergarten. One would never guess that the kind, encouraging smiles that guide the children through their morning masks heavy hearts these days.
After 50 years, the preschool will close its doors on May 20.
Director of Marketing and Community Services Rebecca Munoz-Ripley, and teachers Stephanie Schrader and Kim Krabbenhoeft, along with parent Carlos Munoz, worked with the kids on this day, helping to fill in for Nancy Pitch.
Schrader sat at a table where kids made crowns that went with the day’s Q word – queen. She and Pitch had decided to retire after this year, weighing into the timing of the closure. Schrader said the two teachers are kindred spirits.
“Mrs. Pitch and I met in an early-education class at Sauk,” Schrader said. “When you think and teach alike, it’s really amazing.”
After they started together at the preschool 13 years ago, they decided they would leave together.
“This is a wonderful program,” Schrader said. “Doing this was always in the back of my mind, but when my kids went through the program, I knew I wanted to get involved.”
For Krabbenhoeft, the choice to leave was not her own. She worries about the 2-year-olds, because her classes were the only preschool option for that age group in four counties.
I’ve been here 24 years, and this is my life,” she said. “I’ve watched these kids go to college, and I’ve seen so many success stories. This has been my dream job. I guess I’ll try being a full-time housewife now; I’ve never done that before.”
This was the last day of many that Munoz had spent with the preschool classes. He and his wife, Munoz-Ripley, struggled at times to deal with the emotion.
“This is my last helper day,” Munoz said. “We’ve had five kids go through this program, and it’s very sad to lose it.”
The decision to end the program – which now includes two classes of 2-year-olds, one class of 3-year-olds, and one section of 4- and 5-year-olds – was made in March, Executive Director Carol Fitzgerald said.
The decision was a difficult one, but one that made sense on several levels, Fitzgerald said. Economics, teacher retirements, and ever-increasing state requirements conspired against the program.
“We had been evaluating the program for several years,” Fitzgerald said. “We had been running at a deficit, and we had to ask ourselves if there was another community need that we should be meeting instead.”
The local preschool landscape has changed dramatically since the YWCA first started its program.
“Fifty years ago we were the only ones doing this, and now there are so many ways to meet that need,” Fitzgerald said. “As much as families love it, there is so much competition.”
While many preschools receive state and federal funding, the YWCA preschools must rely on parent fees, a small amount of United Way money, and donations. Last year, the program incurred $77,000 in expenses.
The regulations have served only to intensify the financial pressures, Fitzgerald said.
“We are licensed by the state, and the requirements have become increasingly out of reach,” she said.
History shows that when the YWCA steps in to fill an unmet need, many other entities follow suit, Fitzgerald said. Eventually, others may be better equipped to fill that need.
“The Y began prenatal classes in the 1960s, offered the first LPN training, and typing training,” Fitzgerald said.
An event to celebrate the history of the preschool will be held later this spring. Details will be available later.
“We’re very proud of the program, and the wonderful teachers we’ve had over the years,” Fitzgerald said.
The sound of children frolicking in the play area outside could be heard as Fitzgerald made her way back to her office. She stopped near the door to take it all in.
“I’ll really miss hearing those little voices outside every day,” she said.