Less than two months after St. Mark’s Preschool and Kindergarten announced it was closing, a group of parents and teachers launched a new school project, which they hope to have operating by August.
“We are not over the finish line, but I wouldn’t bet against us at this point,” said John Schaibley, a parent at St. Mark’s Preschool and now the president of the Climbing Tree Community school board.
The new Climbing Tree project is completely separate from St. Mark’s Presbyterian church, which has been housing the school, but the new board hopes to hire all of the existing preschool and kindergarten staffers and is in the process of registering as a tax-exempt nonprofit.
Climbing Tree Community will offer half-day and full-day programs for children ages 3 to 5 years old, have six large classrooms, tuition ranging from $470-$825 per month, a maximum enrollment of 120 and offer summer camp.
The campus of Climbing Tree Community School will be located in the unoccupied south wing of Tucson Unified’s Blenman Elementary, just 1.6 miles from St. Mark’s Preschool.
“The classrooms are amazing: these 820-square-foot classes with high ceilings. I was blown away when we found it,” said Schaibley.
The lease has been preapproved and the Tucson Unified Governing Board will vote on the final authorization on April 13.
April Turner, director of St. Mark’s Preschool, will be the director for Climbing Tree Community School.
Thus far, around 60 parents have expressed their intent to enroll. Some families are currently at St. Mark’s Preschool, which is closing this summer, and others are new.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
The new school is a result of the volunteer work of parents and allies that wanted to save the program.
Schaibley, Autumn Rentmeester and Theresa Foster were the first to self-organize and start a campaign.
“We pulled up all of our old parent directories and made a big list of every parent that we could find and have been reaching out that way,” Schaibley said.
All of them have strong ties to St. Mark’s preschool, having sent their children there, and Foster is even an alum herself and currently serves on the St. Mark’s Preschool board.
The team began communicating with Turner, St. Mark’s Preschool director, about the possibility of starting a new preschool and kindergarten this fall. Turner and two teachers started volunteering their time to offer consultation and help plan the new project.
“I wanted to be on board with them to help in any way that I could. I wanted to be a part of it,” Turner said.
In the course of less than two months, Turner said she saw a whole community come together. Although the core started small, she has seen up to 50 people get involved in small and large ways.
Through their fundraising efforts, the group received numerous donations under $50, and some rare but generous gifts ranging from $500 to $1,000. Since they’re still in the process of registering the nonprofit, bigger donors remain out of the picture for the moment, Schaibley says.
“We really still need community support to make this go smoothly in the next couple of months,” he said.
Similar tuition rates and the close proximity to St. Mark’s Preschool make Climbing Tree Community School appealing to parents who wanted to keep their kids enrolled.
Kristi Raymond’s oldest son went to school at St. Mark’s Preschool and her youngest was just in her first year as they received news of the closure.
“I actually shed a few tears. It’s been a wonderful community for us,” Raymond said.
She had to make a back-up plan and register in a new school to make sure the change wouldn’t affect their work life. Still, she doesn’t doubt whether she’ll transfer her youngest to Climbing Tree Community.
But even if the new school maintains the same staff and programs as the ones offered in St. Mark’s Preschool, Climbing Tree won’t maintain hard-won titles as it starts from scratch. St. Mark’s preschool had been accredited since 2003 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children — a designation only nine other preschools in Tucson have.
Turner says that although they can’t transfer the accreditation, they will continue to operate with NAEYC standards. NAEYC can consider candidate schools after a year of operation, so she expects to win back the title in August 2022.
Turner said it’s not hard for her to envision the growth of Climbing Tree Community School into a larger project.
8 book recommendations for kids of all ages
‘When Pencil Met Eraser’
Written by Karen Kilpatrick and Luis O. Ramos Jr.
Illustrated by German Blanco
This hilariously illustrated book is about a pencil who “likes to work alone” and an eraser who has all sorts of ideas for improvement for pencil’s drawings. At first, pencil is annoyed by eraser’s changes, but by the end of the book, he recognizes that the white space, blending effects and mistake correction that eraser offers makes his drawings better. Chosen by Parents magazine as one of the best kids’ book of the year.
By Ximo Abadia
Along with “Small in the City” (below), this story won a place in the New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Book of the Year. It’s the simple tale of a farmer, Paul, hard at work planting and tending his crops, when a drought comes along and threatens to destroy everything he’s worked so hard to nurture. The boldly colored illustrations are charming and full of whimsy, with little “easter egg” surprises here and there that will delight children in their discovery.
‘Room on Our Rock’
Written by Kate and Jol Temple
Illustrated by Terri Rose Baynton
Named winner of the 2020 Charlotte Huck Award, this clever book is actually two in one — it can be read forward and backward. In the “forward” story, an adult and child seal must find another rock to live on when theirs is overtaken by water, but the seals on the rock they approach don’t want to make room. Read the pages backward, though, and the same collection of phrases and sentences tell another story: We see your plight and welcome you to our rock, where we have plenty of room. A great look at differing attitudes toward refugees and a learning moment for empathy and sharing.
‘Small in the City’
By Sydney Smith
This delicately wrought tale about a child’s search for a missing “friend” through the snowy city is a masterpiece of art and storytelling. But just who is the narrator? The city is seen in evocative glimpses and atmospheric impressions, and the story’s narrative takes a surprising and poignant turn that will leave you rereading the whole thing with tears in your eyes.
‘Citlali and the Day of the Dead — Citlali y el Dia de Muertos’
Written by Berta De Llano
Illustrated by Jamie Rivera Contreras
If you are a member of a bilingual Spanish-speaking family or simply want to learn Spanish vocabulary, the Keepsake Stories Collection offers several engaging stories in dual-language format. Many of the titles retell traditional Latin American folktales, but “Citlali and the Day of the Dead” is an original story that follows Citlali as she and her community prepare for Dia de los Muertos.
‘Mosi Musa: A True Tale About a Baby Monkey Raised by His Grandma’
By Georgeanne Irvine
The fourth book in the San Diego Zoo’s Hope and Inspiration Collection, “Mosi Musa” is the true story of a baby vervet monkey whose start in life was a complicated birth and a mother who showed no interest in caring for him. Although his human caretakers need to bottle feed him, Mosi’s Grandma Thelma steps in to cuddle, groom and protect him. Together, Mosi and Grandma Thelma show how special — and important — grandmas truly are.
‘Trevor Lee and the Big Uh-Oh’
Written by Wiley Blevins
Illustrated by Marta Kissi
This cute, clever and funny children’s book is about a mischievous third-grader doing all he can to avoid reading in front of a large audience on his school’s Parents Night, driven by the insecurity that he is not a great reader. To make matters worse, he is soon assigned an additional passage when another student falls ill. Beneath the quirky “kid’s eye” view of the world lies the message that learning to read is a process that takes persistence.
‘I Can Make This Promise’
By Christine Day
Inspired by the author’s personal family history, this powerful children’s book is about a mixed-race 12-year-old Native American girl searching for the truth behind her family’s complicated legacy and a connection to the culture from which she has been raised apart.
Clara Migoya is a University of Arizona journalism student apprenticing with the Arizona Daily Star.