With the dreaded final day that Christ Lutheran Nursery School will be open quickly approaching, the mid-May weather outside the modest glass-and-brick structure at the corner of Edmondson Avenue and Meridale Road in Catonsville was as gloomy as the prospect of the school’s shuttering after more than six decades of serving preschoolers and their families.
Yet inside, the warm and friendly sounds of 3- and 4-year-old children being gently nurtured by teachers such as Joan Galloway, Lauren Kosloski and Joanne Feustle stood in stark contrast to the leaden skies and chilly rain pelting the area for the previous couple of days.
In one classroom, Galloway and Kosloski led the 4-year-olds in a series of “exercises” devised to teach them how to listen to and follow directions, such as marching, hopping, stopping and moving slowly to music.
Galloway, who has been teaching at Christ Lutheran for 33 years, said that at one point, it was the only nursery school in the area and that people were lined up at the door to make sure their children would be admitted.
“Families were looking for academics and religion,” she said. “And we were teaching things that would carry them through for the rest of their lives — like caring, sharing and being kind.”
Feustle and the 3-year-olds were spending time with a show-and-tell segment in which Lydia King, Charlie Dell and Ava Sharretts — Feustle’s granddaughter — were asked questions about the toys they brought with them.
For instance, when Lydia was asked how many wooden figures she brought, the toddler answered “a lot,” prompting Feustle to gently coax her into using numbers to count the toys, which she did.
Feustle, a Christ Lutheran teacher for 29 years whose children, Jon and Anne, attended the school, then asked a child how fast his toy rocket would go before he sent it spinning across the linoleum flooring in an attempt to answer her question.
Charlie’s Captain America figure, which he called “Jason,” and Ava’s pink watch were also part of the discussion that ended before the youngsters were advised to sit cross-legged in the hallway to await their departure, as parents and grandparents lined up in their cars for pickup.
The students were then led by the hand down steps by teachers holding umbrellas to shield the children from the rain in a brief gap from a canopy covering the walkway to the car door.
Unfortunately for school administrators, teachers and children, those scenes won’t be repeated after May 22, the official closing date for a school that offered its first kindergarten class in 1956, when Elvis was still the king of rock ‘n’ roll and President Dwight Eisenhower was re-elected for a second term.
There will be an open house from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. that day for all current and former children and families to visit with the teachers before closing chapel service, during which the children will sing songs for their parents and receive certificates.
The closing is the product of many forces working against Christ Lutheran and similar institutions, including stiff competition from public schools offering free pre-K and kindergarten classes at nearby Westowne and Johnnycake elementary schools.
Other factors include the need for children to be in school for a full day, rather than the 9 a.m.-noon program at Christ Lutheran.
In addition to those issues, a key underlying component to the school’s demise is a general lack of interest in faith-based schools, according to Christ Lutheran school director Claire Broglie.
“We’re a Christ-centered school,” she said. “We talk to the kids about Jesus; and that’s very special to me.”
Cindy Redman, Christ Church administrator, whose son, Will, and granddaughter, Alina, are alums, said that there just aren’t enough families interested in a Christian education to make the school viable.
“It’s really sad,” she said. “They think there’s too much religion and ask if you’re really going to teach the Lord’s Prayer.”
With all of that in mind, the decision to close the school was pondered last fall and confirmed in January, when word was sent to teachers and parents.
After all, enrollment had dwindled from a high of 88 students ages 3 to 5, utilizing four classrooms, to the current 30 3- and 4-year-olds in two classes.
The modest tuition (3-year-olds, twice a week, $1,462 per year; 4-year-olds, three times a week, $2,193) and shrinking enrollment dissuaded Christ Lutheran administrators from attempting to make structural changes to the school’s operations.
“The cost to adapt our program [to full-day] was prohibitive,” Broglie said, noting that the school had cut back to open only three days per week in September. “We just didn’t have the resources to stay open.”
Broglie said that Christ Lutheran teachers emphasize to students how to take directions from adults, how to be part of a group and how to share.
“They are all lessons for life,” she said. “When I witness bad behavior by chidden, I comment that they most likely did not attend CLNS.”
The teachers also taught the principle of helping others by fundraising for a wide variety of organizations, such as the Catonsville Chidren’s Home, Special Olympics Maryland and the Catonsville Emergency Food Ministry.
Over the years, Christ Lutheran participated in a Trike-a-Thon, raising nearly $18,000 for St. Jude Children’s Hospital.
When Heather Plasha, whose daughter Heidi is a student at Christ Lutheran, learned that the school was closing by reading a note in Heidi’s school bag, the Academy Heights resident let the tears flow.
“When we moved here from Philadelphia, we didn’t know anyone,” Plasha said. “We checked out a lot of other schools, but we wanted Heidi to have the same values at school that we have at home. Here, you feel a real sense of love, family and community.”
Plasha said that she didn’t want to talk to the teachers about it, because “I would have cried again.”
It’s the little things, like the teaching of arts and crafts, that make Christ Lutheran special, Plasha added.
“Most teachers didn’t put in the extra effort like they do,” she said.
Kosloski, the teacher, had a similar experience when she moved to Catonsville from Texas in 2001 and was looking for a faith-based preschool for daughters Erin, Emily and Anna.
“We asked around, and everyone we talked to said that we should go to CLNS,” said Kosloski, who has been teaching at the school for seven years in a variety of positions. “We walked in and we could see the love they had not just for what [the teachers] were doing, but the love they had for the kids — the way they share the love of Christ with the students. We felt like it was a great steppingstone from home to [elementary] school.”
Feustle said 100 people were on a waiting list when she wanted to enroll her children in the school in the late 1980s.
And she taught two classes of 18 3-year-olds until three years ago, when an enrollment drop meant she would have just one class.
Then, when the school week went to just three days of classes, the writing was on the wall.
“It’s a shame,” Feustle said. “I was hoping for a few more years, because I love being here. I don’t think of it as work. The children are like my grandchildren. My husband [John] tells me that I don’t work, that I just go play with children.”