PITTSFIELD — When Melissa Fawcett held a July 29 open house for the new location of her school, parents and parishioners alike filed in, curious to see the changes.
Over the past three years, Fawcett's program, Ready Set Learn Preschool, had outgrown its home-based space on Virginia Avenue. Looking for something more spacious in the neighborhood, she put in an offer last December on 133 Dalton Ave., the vacant St. Martin's Episcopal Church situated on the intersection with Benedict Road.
Fawcett said some open house guests shared their church history with her.
"People told me how they got married here, they went to church here ... they remember coming to penny socials and tag sales in the basement," she said.
Some, she said, were happy to see the building being rededicated to an educational cause, but for others the closing of the church remains bittersweet.
The Rev. Vicki Ix, communications director for The Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, said in January 2016 the St. Martin's leadership voted to close the church.
"Congregations choose closure for a variety of reasons — decline in membership, insufficient resources and buildings that require extensive repair or maintenance. The people made a brave, albeit painful decision to let go of the building and were welcomed by Episcopal congregations in the surrounding area," Ix told The Eagle in an email.
According to public real estate transaction records, Fawcett, under an LLC, bought the 4,426-square-foot property April 6 for $87,500 from the Episcopal Missions of Western Massachusetts, with the help of a loan from Lee Bank. Along with the things she wanted for her preschool, like a big indoor play space and large classrooms, she also inherited everything that makes a church a church: baptismal font, parish pews and a rooftop cross. Some items were given away, while others had to be thrown away.
Between April and July, architect Jeff Noble from Hill-Engineers, Architects, Planners and a construction crew from Tyler Street-based Marcella Building & Renovation Contractor worked together to gut the structure and create a modern space for early education, with new floors, windows, accessible bathrooms and fresh paint and child-sized furniture for the classrooms. In the front corridor, by the windows across from Fawcett's new office, one sturdy pew that was formerly a modest shade of dark brown has a new look. It has been revived with a sunny yellow bench seat and a mural of blue skies and wildflower painted on the back and sides by a relative of one of her preschool parents.
Now, teachers, friends and family members of Fawcett are working together to put the finishing touches on the space for opening day, from installing the security system to sprucing up the learning stations.
"I didn't know how many talented friends I had until I did this," Fawcett said.
Fawcett — a graduate of Wahconah Regional High School and a 10-year teacher and reading interventionist for Pittsfield Public Schools — said she entered the preschool business back when she and her husband, Kenneth, were looking for a preschool for their son, Matthew, now 8. She said that while they settled with a public school program, they struggled to find what they really wanted: a full-day program that offers a comprehensive curriculum along with ample time for play and field trips.
These days, Fawcett said, she's finding that prospective and current families are coming to Ready Set Learn looking for those same things. "They're wondering where can I go that's nice and safe and has a good curriculum that's full day," she said. "A lot of our kids are teachers' kids."
This year, when doors officially open Sept. 4 for drop-off, Ready Set Learn will grow from 13 children to 61, with a waiting list. Fawcett has hired a teacher and an assistant for each classroom.
"We have 61 enrolled families, but we only have about 45 kids each day across two 4-year-old classrooms and one 3-year-old class," Fawcett said. Some students don't attend for a full week.
Preschool runs from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., with extended before- and after-school drop-off and pickup times. She said families are coming from Pittsfield, Lanesborough, Dalton and Adams.
Fawcett said she's grateful for the community support that has rallied around the school.
Back in May, she launched a GoFundMe webpage to raise funds to install a playground and raised $2,100 of an $8,000 goal. She was still able to raise enough to install playground pieces this summer.
She said she also received guidance in creating a transition and business plan from Nancy Shulman in the Berkshire regional office of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network.
"From what was in my mind, this is exactly what I wanted," she said. "It's exciting."