Sunnyside preschool in Northampton to close after 45 years

  • Thomas L. Weber, then the Commissioner of Early Education and Care, interacts with children at the Sunnyside Early Childcare Center in Northampton on June 13, 2017. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Shawna Tobin, director of Sunnyside Early Childhood Center in Northampton, talks about the decision to close  the preschool Friday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sunnyside Early Childhood Center in Northampton, which announced it will close, on Friday, July 17,2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Shawna Tobin, director of Sunnyside Early Childhood Center in Northampton, talks about the decision to close the preschool, Friday, July 17, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/17/2020 10:31:14 AM

NORTHAMPTON — After 45 years in operation, Sunnyside Early Education and Care announced its permanent closure Friday, citing financial hardships that were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The preschool, previously located on the Smith College campus, had for years struggled with debt it acquired when it moved to 557 Easthampton Road in 2013, according to Sunnyside director and board of directors member Shawna Tobin. When several families decided not to send their children to preschool this coming school year due to coronavirus concerns, the financial losses became too great to continue running the preschool, according to Tobin.

“We realized after several families had withdrawn that grown-ups just aren’t ready to let go of their little people right now,” Tobin said, speaking from the building’s “Elm Room” classroom.

Within the classroom, books, toys and arts and crafts supplies remain in place, as if the preschool were preparing to welcome students back. But other signs expose the pandemic’s impact: a silent, extremely tidy classroom that would normally host children for summer programming; an empty fish tank; and student artwork still left on drying racks from when the school needed to abruptly close following Gov. Charlie Baker’s shutdown order in March.

Since that order, six to eight families have notified Sunnyside that they will not be sending their children to the preschool in the fall, Tobin said, noting that just four or five families dropping out of the program can translate to a loss of around $60,000 to $70,000 for the school.

Additionally, said Sunnyside board president Sara Lasser Yau, the preschool would not have been able to adequately pay its teachers with tuition brought in from class sizes limited by the state’s pandemic regulations.

“COVID is really the thing that kicked the legs out from under us,” Lasser Yau said. “We just could not open with the required ratios to keep everyone safe, and we could not afford to pay our two teachers per 10 kids based on the tuition we’d be able to bring in.”

Raising tuition was also out of the question, Lasser Yau said, especially as many families struggle with financial stressors during the pandemic. Before the shutdown, Sunnyside had already had to cut back on affordability measures for families — for many years, the school offered tuition on a sliding scale basis. But with 48% of families enrolled in the bottom two tiers of the sliding scale system last year, school leadership instituted a flat rate at the beginning of the most recent school year in an effort to stay afloat. For five days a week during the core day (7:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.), the rate is $1,620 per month.

“A lot of our families are being affected. A lot of our families have lost jobs, and we couldn’t be asking for more tuition,” Lasser Yau said. “The cost of child care is too high to begin with, and we don’t pay our teachers enough at the same time. It’s just not a sustainable system.”

Moving from Paradise

Though Sunnyside was never a part of Smith College, unlike Smith’s Center for Early Childhood Education at Fort Hill, the preschool was “a fixture on the campus” at 70 Paradise Road, Tobin said. But when the college decided it wanted to repurpose the building, Sunnyside needed to find a new home.

Smith donated $150,000 to assist the preschool in purchasing a new facility and maintained some ties with Sunnyside over the years, Tobin said, characterizing the college’s involvement as “generous.” Smith continued to send work-study students to the school, two Smith faculty members were on the Sunnyside board up until the past year, and the college donated five iPads to the preschool in 2016, according to Tobin.

Sarah Buttenwieser, a former Sunnyside parent and member of the committee that chose the Easthampton Road building, was more critical of the college’s handling of Sunnyside’s departure.

“Smith had housed Sunnyside for a long time, and it did not do so much to support the next phase when it let Sunnyside go,” Buttenwieser said.

“We had hoped Smith would do more to help us stay either on or near the campus, or just in its orbit,” she added, noting that student workers had more difficulty reaching the preschool after its move.

While the new building, which required renovations, eventually became financially overwhelming, Buttenwieser said it felt like the best option at the time “given very limited resources both in terms of money and in terms of a building that we might be able to find” for the program.

A community loss

Buttenwieser was involved with Sunnyside for nine years — two of her children each spent four years at the school, and in the one-year period between their tenures, Buttenwieser continued to help edit the school’s newsletters “because I really loved that school so much,” she said. Sunnyside’s closure is a loss in more ways than one, she said.

“There’s that nostalgia piece, and it was just such a magical place,” Buttenwieser said. “The other piece is that there are really not very many options that are even near affordable for early childhood education, and the quality of what Sunnyside provided was so high. That’s a huge loss for Northampton.”

Northampton had 15 preschool options last November, according to Joshua Dickson, associate director of student services for Northampton Public Schools, and will have at least one fewer with the shuttering of Sunnyside.

Last month, the kindergarten at the historic Hill Institute in Florence, which dates back almost 150 years, announced it would be closing due to declining enrollment.

“This pandemic is showing us over and over again that our priorities are so skewed,” Buttenwieser said, “because what would you want more than a good, solid start for children?”

While the pandemic has magnified issues faced by preschools and child care centers such as Sunnyside, these problems are neither new nor rare, Tobin and Lasser Yau said, and stem from a lack of state, federal and public investment in early childhood care. Furthermore, state aid will not be enough to solve these issues, Tobin said, adding that the federal government needs to make significant financial contributions to child care services.

“Places like Sunnyside exist on a razor-thin margin all the time,” Tobin said. Even those with the funding to survive into the coming school year may not be able to last out the pandemic.

While Tobin supports the public safety regulations, without the proper funding, “these particular COVID measures are an absolute death sentence,” she said.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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