Like the transformation from tiny seed to sturdy tree, Pinecone Preschool has expanded from one building to two, increasing its capacity by 60 children.
Caitlyn Harper, 5, was proud to say she is now a member of “Moana’s Island,” a classroom named after the Disney princess whose portrait adorned Caitlyn’s shoes Monday morning.
The new 3,800-square-foot building, on the north side of the existing facility, includes a long hallway lined with Disney murals, four themed classrooms, a teacher’s lounge and an indoor gym where children can play and do movement-based learning activities year-round.
“We turn on music and we dance,” Caitlyn said of the gym, a carpeted room featuring a hand-painted Peter Pan mural, with space for a balance beam, tumbling mats and even a piano, depending on the activity.
With the expansion, the preschool has also extended its hours and is now open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. every weekday.
Although it offers year-round child care services, a new classroom has been set aside for a nine-week summer program for first through third graders. The program will focus on reading, math and science exploration and is open to 17 children.
Beth Johndrow has been the director of the child care center for 11 years. She helped lead the transition of the preschool out of its previous home, Hope Community Church, and into its current King Street facility five years ago.
“When we were at the church, I had four classrooms and I probably had 30 kids. Now we are up to 95 kids. There’s always need for more spots in a quality preschool,” she said.
The school serves infants to 5-year-olds and is a participant in First Things First, a statewide program through Quality First that works to improve and enrich early childhood education. It reported that more than 900 children in the Coconino region attended Quality First preschools and child care programs in 2018.
Participation in this program has allowed Pinecone Preschool to provide seven scholarships for children of low-income families each year.
With the expansion of its facility, class sizes at the child care center have also been reduced, at least for now.
Sarah Starns, pre-K teacher, said her original 27-child class has now been split in half between its two pre-K teachers. The children rotate between two new classrooms for different activities and still gather together as one group for outside playtime, though they are now in different classes.
“It was a good change of pace for everybody and the kids seem to have adapted really well to everything new. We were in [the previous] room for a while, so it was good to move on and get a fresh start for the summer. I love having my own space,” she said.
Her class had plenty of space to work on various activities Monday, as one group played with a garden sensory box and reviewed their guesses about which type of plant grows the fastest, while another practiced writing letters of the alphabet.
Although Reagan Pettay, 5, claimed she and her classmates play all day and don’t learn anything, she diligently practiced the alphabet using dice in a dome to randomly select letters.
Johndrow said she intends to hire two additional full-time teachers in the fall as more children fill the available spots. This week, there have already been four new children enrolled, she said.
Kevin Harper, owner of the preschool and Caitlyn’s father, said the current size of the preschool is just right when considering both the need and the size of the property.
“I know a lot of places in town have waiting lists, so now we don’t have to have a waiting list for a while,” he said.
Harper said child care is the family business: his grandmother founded Rockhouse Playschool on West Cherry Avenue fifty years ago, so when Johndrow needed help managing the new location, he was eager to assist.
“It seemed like a good opportunity and there was a need for it on this side of town,” he said.
Harper said creating the new preschool building was much easier than completing the initial renovations needed to make the main building – which previously housed Squiggle Kids Learning Center and Mary Moppet's Day Care School – operational.
“The building had been empty for 6 or 7 years. It was a disaster. It had a flat roof that leaked and the drywall had rotted. When we first looked at it I thought, oh boy, but we renovated it and it turned out real nice,” Harper said.
The first graduating class of children who have attended Pinecone Preschool at its current location since they were infants will have just a few months to use the new space before they leave for kindergarten in the fall.
“It has been really cool watching them grow and learn here,” Johndrow said.