For Archana Bailey, the preschool at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ had long “felt like home.”
Her four children attended there, with the youngest set to be in the transitional kindergarten class this school year, and Bailey went to the program herself as a child.
So, she was devastated to hear that a fire had broken out in the building on E. Carmel Drive the morning of July 28. Most of the blaze was contained to a storage room, but extensive smoke damage and firefighting efforts led to the rest of the building being unusable anytime soon.
But the bigger surprise came 10 days later, when the church notified preschool families it had decided to suspend the preschool ministry – approximately two weeks before the start of the school year – until further notice.
“It was really, really shocking,” Bailey said. “We can all understand a fire, but the way that everything was handled was subpar, to say the least.”
Since the fire, the preschool director had been scouting temporary locations, and preschool staff created a wish list registry to help supply classrooms, according to Katie Mueller, a preschool parent familiar with both initiatives. Parents said it appeared the school had found a pathway to begin the school year.
“We all were under the assumption that preschool would still happen, it would just be in a different place,” Mueller said. “So, when the news came out that the church had decided not to go forward with the program, I was shocked.”
In response to an interview request, St. Peter’s church emailed documents previously sent to preschool parents and staff about the fire damage and decision to suspend operations.
St. Peter’s announced the closure to preschool staff and families in an Aug. 4 email from the church’s Governance Council.
“It is with a heavy heart that the Governance Council has decided to suspend St. Peter’s Preschool ministry until further notice,” the email states. “The decision was discussed at length and various opportunities and solutions to continue preschool operations were considered. Ultimately, it is not possible to safely operate the preschool for the 2023-2024 school year and potentially beyond.”
In an Aug. 8 email from St. Peter’s Senior Pastor Lori Bievenour to preschool staff, Bievenour states that “the building will not be operationally accessible for many months, if not years” and that investigators and insurance professionals have “insisted the building is not safe to enter.”
Tim Griffin, a firefighter and spokesman for the Carmel Fire Department, said he was among crews responding to the fire at St. Peter’s. He said it may be difficult to determine an exact cause of the fire but that foul play is not suspected.
“We can trace back and say, ‘It started in this area of a room,’ but on top of that we get in there and we spray water and move stuff,” Griffin said. “So, in the efforts of putting it out we damage a lot of the (investigator’s) ability to know what happened.”
The church is working to issue refunds to preschool families and severance to employees.
In the meantime, families have been scrambling to find other preschools, and that has provided a bit of a silver lining for some. Parents said several other local preschools have been helpful and accommodating, especially Orchard Park Preschool at Orchard Park Presbyterian Church in Carmel.
Shelly Wood, senior pastor at OPPC, said she connected with St. Peter’s leadership soon after the fire to offer support, and her church building was considered as a temporary location for the displaced preschool.
Ultimately, they determined relocating the entire preschool to OPPC wouldn’t work logistically, Wood said, but Orchard Park Preschool has hired four of the former St. Peter’s preschool teachers and will welcome more than 30 of its former students when the school year begins this month.
It’s been an unexpected pivot with the school year about to start, but Wood said the events of recent years have prepared the preschool to be flexible.
“Since COVID, we’ve been in a state of transition,” Wood said. “We have not ever had a normal year, so it’s par for the course.”
Although heartbroken by the closure of St. Peter’s, Mueller’s two young children have found a last-minute spot in another preschool in the area.
“(The preschool staff at St. Peter’s) truly treated our children as their own. It really felt like you were dropping your kids off with family,” Mueller said. “It’s just really sad that that has come to an end.”