Noe Valley Voice March 1999

Three Nursery Schools May Be Little Lost Lambs

By Denise Minor

Desperately Seeking: A large, sunny ground-floor facility in Noe Valley or surrounding neighborhoods with kitchen and bathrooms that will accommodate at least 30 small children, plus their toys and art supplies. Must have safe, clean outdoor area large enough for play equipment and a sandbox.

Make that three of the above.

In what could be a sad coincidence or a sign of the times, three area nursery schools find themselves in the market for a new home.

Little Bear School at 5300 Diamond Heights Blvd. and Little People's Workshop of 416 Cortland are being evicted over the next few months from their longtime homes. Both will be housed temporarily in Noe Valley churches.

Wind in the Willows, 1444 Church St., is also looking for a new place to rent in Noe Valley, since its lease expires in June 2000. However, Wind in the Willows board president Julie Thompson said the school might still be able to negotiate a lease renewal for its current site.

The problem, according to Sharon Lepper, who lives on 27th Street near Church, is that real estate prices have skyrocketed in the recent years. Lepper is a parent at Little People's Workshop, which is a cooperative nursery school serving children 11/2 to 3 years old.

"There's this feeding frenzy in real estate," said Lepper. "A child-care center has no ability to compete in San Francisco. It's an essential business, but it's not a revenue-producing business."

Little People's Workshop has been in the same Bernal Heights home for about 20 years and has always served a number of Noe Valley families, said Lepper. It is unique because it is the only city cooperative to serve pre­nursery school children 40 hours a week. Tuition is $250 per month, plus one weekly eight-hour work shift at the school.

The Bernal Heights property belonged to the family of city Rec and Park Superintendent Ron deLeon, said Lepper. The family sold the property last fall. In November, co-op members received an eviction notice from the new owner, Kingmond Young, to move out by Christmas.

The school gathered letters of support from Mayor Willie Brown, State Senator John Burton, and four city supervisors, asking Young to extend the preschool's lease.

"We met with him in January, and he agreed to let us stay until April 30," said Lepper. Young is a photographer who plans to live in the upstairs unit and use the area that now serves as the nursery school as his studio.

At press time, Little People's Workshop (648-5156) was finalizing plans to move temporarily into the multipurpose room of a central Noe Valley church. (The church wished to remain anonymous until the papers were actually signed.)

"The space isn't big enough," Lepper said. "We'll have to break everything down and put things away every night because the room is used for other things. But who knows. Maybe it will work out all right."

Up the hill from Noe Valley, Little Bear School must leave its bottom-floor home at St. Aidan's Episcopal Church by June 30, after 11 years in that spot.

According to minister Nedi Rivera, the church needs the space to offer an after-school program to its own neighborhood children. St. Aidan's has about 170 members, she said.

Little Bear director and owner Patricia Finnegan said she received notice in May of last year that her lease would not be renewed. The problem, she said, was that she had just completed enrollment for the two-year program, which serves about 50 children between the ages of 3 and 5.

Finnegan said she was committed to one more year of providing child care for the families that began last fall.

"I'm frantically searching for another space," said Finnegan. "The families have been petitioning the church to allow us to stay for one more year. I'm offering to pay one year in advance, and give up part of the room."

But the church isn't budging, she said.

For the month of July, Little Bear will rent the nursery school space at the Noe Valley Ministry on Sanchez Street, which is occupied during the school year by the Noe Valley Co-op Nursery School. But come Aug. 1, Finnegan has no idea where she'll be. She asked that anyone who might have space available give her a call at 282-2224.

Little Bear offers full-day child care for three, four, or five days per week. The program includes dancing, tumbling, and swimming lessons, as well as field trips to places such as the music classes at Lowell High School.

Wind in the Willows, a Noe Valley institution for more than 25 years, is not in as precarious a position as the two other nursery schools. Board president Thompson said there is a possibility that the school's lease will be renewed in the year 2000. But just in case, the school has three parent groups looking into relocation -- the finance committee, the real estate committee, and the grant-writing committee.

"It is getting more and more difficult to find commercial space that is acceptable for children," said Thompson. "There are a number of requirements. For instance, there must be a certain square footage of both indoor and outdoor space per child."

Thus far, their search for a new home has only reached dead ends. "Realtors don't want to wait to see if a space complies with all the requirements for a child-care provider if they have someone who can sign a lease right away without restrictions," said Thompson.

One thing Wind in the Willows has going in its favor is a stable financial position, because it has been saving money for years in case of a situation like this. The preschool serves 52 families, most from Noe Valley, in either its morning or afternoon program. It offers the option of two, three, or five days per week. Call 285-5510 if you can help.

Both Thompson and Lepper have heard of numerous other city nursery schools facing either eviction or large rent increases. "It used to be that the Parks and Recreation buildings offered reasonable rents to child-care providers," said Thompson. "But in the last year, they've started bringing all those rents up to market rate."

Lepper said she believes the city should step in to help preserve the quality child care that already exists. "There should be a moratorium on kicking out child-care centers," she said. "The city should be out there making a concerted effort to protect us."