Neighborhood preschool in Boulder closing after 38 years

After 38 years at its location in the University Hill area, Sunshine House Montessori Preschool will be closing permanently at the end of the month.

The Sunshine House is a neighborhood preschool that’s been a fixture in the community since it opened, said Director Monica Hebein. Hebein said the area is losing a high quality Montessori school, along with “a sense of community and a small, neighborhood school.”

“We’re a small school with a cozy home-like environment, and I feel like small schools are able to provide comfort, and give more individual attention … and many small neighborhood schools bring the community together,” Hebein said.

Montessori schools create a customized environment where kids participate in individualized learning and more hands-on learning compared to a typical preschool classroom. Kids learn about kindness, independence, coordination, concentration, responsibility, leadership and more.

Morgia Holmes enrolled two of her kids in Sunshine House since she moved to Boulder from Boston five years ago. The man they were buying their house from had children in high school who had gone to Sunshine House and loved it. He told Holmes he knew the director well and it was something she should consider.

“Sunshine House never felt like a business,” Holmes said. “It felt like home, it’s such a crucial part of the neighborhood.”

Holmes said she seen notable changes in her children since attending Sunshine House, particularly with her son who is now in kindergarten.

“It was nice because Sunshine House provided that whole experience where he not only was a sweeter, kinder person but was ready to learn and already ahead of the game when it came to learning.”

Eric Zale also has a son enrolled in Sunshine House. Zale said the school has been great for his son and feels he’s been thriving since he started there.

“I would say the community is losing really dedicated teachers who are committed to teaching preschool …  and everyone who was sending their kid there has to find another place,” Zale said. “Childcare is one of the major pressing issues in our society right now, and it’s a very, very challenging thing to provide good, affordable childcare.”

Schools ‘dropping like flies’

Holmes and Zale’s children won’t have to find a new preschool to attend because they’re headed to kindergarten in the fall. However, other parents are tasked with searching for a new school.

Dede Beardsley, founder and head of Mapleton Montessori Preschool in Boulder, said many children and parents from Sunshine are applying to join her school at Hebein’s recommendation. Beardsley said she’s trying to hire more staff to expand capacity and accept them into the school.

In addition to the closing of Sunshine House, Harmony Preschool and Countryside Montessori Preschool in Boulder have also closed. Danielle Butler, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Boulder County, said it’s because of a variety of factors, such as pandemic recovery, retirements and inability to hire.

“Schools are dropping like flies,” Beardsley said. “Any school that wants to continue and is forced to close, for whatever reason, I think is very sad.”

For Sunshine House, the main reasons for closing are low enrollment and an inability to hire a new director, as Hebein is set to retire. Since the pandemic, enrollment numbers have not returned to capacity and Hebein said she’s struggled to find qualified, dedicated staff.

State regulations also require directors to fill out “onerous” amounts of paperwork to operate a Montessori school, Hebein said. New regulations related to Colorado’s Universal Preschool program also discourages potential new hires from wanting to become directors, and, Hebein said, directors are quitting in big numbers because of it.

‘A lot of passion’

Through UPK, every child in the year before kindergarten is able to get up to 15 hours of state-funded preschool a week. Families are able to apply for additional hours if they qualify for other programs.

Sunshine House does not participate in the UPK program, and because of that, Hebein said she believes the school may have lost some kids.

Beardsley said some private preschools are opting out of UPK because the state’s reimbursement rates are less than the school’s tuition, causing some places to lose money and enrollment numbers. UPK is an imperfect system, she said, causing more work for preschools and not giving enough money to families in need by giving all families the same amount of credit.

“So, this really isn’t helping anybody,” Beardsley said. “It’s not universal pre-k, it’s still pre-k for people who have the money to do it.”

Butler said the ECC doesn’t have enough information to say whether UPK is hurting private preschools, since it’s starting in the 2023-2024 school year, and that each school adapts to UPK differently. Butler said getting adjusted to UPK has been challenging because it is a big change and a large influx of funding.

Butler said the ECC does its best to provide support and resources for preschools in Boulder County to stay open, even if it isn’t always possible. She said it is a concern to see preschools in Boulder closing because of the need for slots for children in preschools and the value providers have for families.

“Early childhood education engineers a lot of passion,” Butler said. “Your childcare provider becomes part of your family.”

With the closing of Sunshine House, Beardsley said the community is losing a close-knit  neighborhood school where, in some cases, generations of families have attended.

“Monica knows the families, the families know Monica, she had their older kids, some of the kids who are the parents went to her school when they were three … and that’s just an incredible relationship to have,” Beardsley said.

“And we know that relationships are one of the most important things for long term health. The importance of relationships cannot be underestimated. So when we lose Sunshine House, we lose all of that.”

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