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Parents, teachers give second life to longtime Tucson preschool
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Parents, teachers give second life to longtime Tucson preschool

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St. Mark's Preschool

The new Climbing Tree project intends to succeed St. Mark’s Preschool and Kindergarten, which is closing this summer. Above, Kelsi Somers watches as her son Noah, 5, takes part in a science project at St. Mark’s.

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.

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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.

Clara Migoya is a University of Arizona journalism student apprenticing with the Arizona Daily Star.


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