Church on the Hill's chapel plans leave Lenox Preschool looking for new home

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This story has been modified to correct information about the origin of the preschool.

LENOX — Wanted: A new home for Lenox Preschool/Little Explorers, which is losing its lease after six years at the Church on the Hill chapel. 

The 250-year-old church on Main Street is exploring partnerships to host weddings, community meetings and other events at the chapel building, down the hill from the church, in order to sustain itself at a time of declining membership for many congregations.

The preschool is officially closing on June 12, its scheduled last day of the year, said creative director Courtney Gilardi. She's a co-founder who had been a healing arts director at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health and is a self-described naturopath who practices "natural medicine," including a herbal diet nutritional lifestyle.

Especially in its early years, the preschool was closely aligned with Church on the Hill, an affiliate of United Church of Christ, a mainline Protestant denomination. The current leadership of the Lenox church has distanced itself from the preschool, which is now a limited liability corporation, state-licensed for 18 children at one time.

"They're just going in a different direction," Gilardi said.

While she searches for a new location with the end of tenancy looming, Gilardi recently notified the families of the 17 youngsters currently enrolled to "make alternative arrangements for your child's early education and care needs. It has been an honor to serve your children this year. I am savoring every moment I have in the classroom with them."

If a new space can be located for this fall, an infant-toddler program to expand Lenox Preschool — which enrolls children 2.9 to 5 or 6 years old — and to serve more families is under consideration. Gilardi, who's also an interfaith wedding celebrant, began her search for a site last November, which could include a Pittsfield locale. The preschool may be on hiatus for 2019-20 if the hunt is unsuccessful.

"With the utmost gratitude and respect, I honor the church's decision," said Gilardi, who was a member of the Church on the Hill when the preschool opened with four children enrolled. "We've been blessed to serve our families, students and community and look forward to new and exciting ways to do that as an evolution of our programming."

The school, open from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., currently serves families from Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge, Tyringham, Great Barrington, Pittsfield, Becket, Lanesborough and Dalton. A summer camp, licensed for youngsters ages 3 to 10, had served from 90 to 120 children over the course of the six-week season.

The preschool's base rate, originally $8 per hour, is currently $8.88 an hour for the four-day program offered Monday through Thursday, Gilardi said. Families can choose two- or three-day schedules and scholarship aid is available. She and the school's other teachers are state-qualified at the Early Education and Care Director 2 level, the highest category.

"We try to teach the children to be active members of our local and global communities and that even though they are small, they are powerful and that their small acts add up and make a difference," said Gilardi, a Lenox native.

The school and the camp focused on elements of the Responsive Classroom, Montessori and Waldorf methods, emphasizing "creativity, guided discoveries, imagination, language development and expansion, social emotional development, inclusivity, mindfulness, positive psychology, growth mindset and resiliency," Gilardi said.

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She credited retired Church on the Hill Rev. Natalie Shiras for supporting the creation of the school, along with church members Ellen Merritt, Lynn Sutton and Barbara Sims.

Emily Chin, chairwoman of the church's board of trustees, said the facility was approved as a tenant of the chapel building in 2013, though Gilardi's records show a lease valid as of September 2012.

In an email to The Eagle, she said church members voted in 2016 to hire Partners for Sacred Places, an organization that helps congregations to explore new uses for "existing sacred and historical buildings and new resources, solidify their continued relevance, and ensure their own sustainability."

She said when the trustees voted in February 2017 not to extend any longtime rental contracts, Gilardi was notified that the lease for the school would not be renewed after June 2019 so families could be notified and alternative spaces could be located.

"The Trustees believed this was the best option for both our organizations because the church wanted to start moving forward with the plans for the chapel renovations as we moved into 2020," Chin said.

“The Preschool is, and always has been, an organization independent of Church on the Hill," she said, "and has hired its own teachers, created its own curriculum and done any and all advertising for students.”

The lease termination signals that the church is implementing a partnership plan for a community center by meeting with architects and seeking proposals to renovate the chapel at 55 Main St. "to allow a co-working space, a wedding venue, flexible-use meeting rooms, a catering kitchen and more so that our historic building will be an even greater asset and destination for our community," Chin said.

"It is the Church on the Hill's 250th birthday this year, and as we continue to honor the rich history of our buildings, we are excited and inspired as we look forward to an even richer future," she said.

Chin pointed to the "incredible transformation" of Zion Lutheran Church in Pittsfield since it consulted with Partners for Sacred Places several years ago.

"They are now a hub of both religious and nonreligious functions in Pittsfield," she said, "and we want to model the future of our chapel building with this same goal in mind."

As for the future of the Lenox Preschool, Gilardi hopes to continue providing "high-quality, affordable. best practice preschool experiences," with an expansion to Friday and weekend offerings and creation of more parent education and support opportunities.

"We're so grateful to the families, you couldn't ask for better children or a better community," she said. "It has been a magical place, and I feel so blessed, it's been the hardest work I've ever done in my life, but the most rewarding and the happiest."

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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