TRUCKEE, Calif. — It was lunchtime Monday the Church of the Mountains preschool and the smell of peanut butter and jelly permeated the air. The preschool's director, Eileen Lyon, was sitting at one of two round tables.“Who here is 5? Raise your hand,” said Lyon. Five children raised a hand.“Who here is 4? Raise your hand,” Lyon said. Four children raised a hand.Five 5-year-olds and four 4-year olds — the children giggled at the thought.Lyon also found the class size funny, but not for the same reason.“We don't have a enough kids,” she said. “The school has room for 60. Last year we had 35. This year we had 20. Next year — four.” She laughed at the thought, and then added: “We're not closing by choice.”
The preschool, which has operated out of a room below the chapel of the United Methodist Church on Church Street in Truckee for the past 28 years, is more like Hollywood's rendition of Munchkinland in the Wizard of Oz than a cinder block basement.Colorful and filled with songs, this room is the place many of Truckee's youngest residents have taken their first fledgling steps on the long, fantastical road of lifelong learning.But the school is at a crux it cannot overcome. Changing economic conditions, as well as Tahoe Truckee Unified School District's rollout of a transitional kindergarten program aimed at serving incoming 4-year-olds, have caused enrollment numbers at Church of the Mountains preschool to drop to unsustainable levels, Lyon said. Last week, the preschool announced it will close at the end of this school year.It's a life change for Lyon.“I've never woke up and thought, ‘Damn, I need to go to work today.' I love my job,” she said. “But for a month I've been going through and separating out all my personal stuff. It's no longer a toy for the school; it's a toy for my daughter.”Lyon's own mother, Dianne Fix, who Lyon refers to still today as Mrs. Fix, founded Church of the Mountains in 1985 with a seed grant of $1,200 from the Derbyshire Family. The grant paid for licensing fees and a few toys, including a wooden climber that is still with the school. From there the school grew into its own, creating a curriculum defined by an appreciation for world cultures and a love for literacy.“The walls in her garage are entirely filled with book bags from floor to ceiling,” wrote former teacher and parent Kristi Morgan in an email. “The bags are sorted by culture, season, psychological development, holidays, not to mention by special authors such as Dr. Seuss.”Each topic has its own bookbag — both Lyon and Morgan talked about the handmade bookbags — with stories about frogs in a frog-themed bag and books about trees in a tree-themed bag.“Mrs. Fix inspired my first collection — Christmas books. I must have over 25 children's Christmas books now,” said Morgan. “I put them away with the ornaments and pull them out each year.”Morgan estimates Mrs. Fix and Lyon put thousands of books in the hands of area children by giving books as gifts not only for celebratory times such as holidays, birthdays and the start of school, but also for life events including births, deaths, divorce, sickness and loss of pets, to name a few.
Parents Jon and Julie Halvorsen (John is a teacher with the TTUSD and an active member of the local teachers union) sent four of their five children to the preschool. Julie said she is disappointed her youngest child, currently 3 months old, will not have the opportunity to attend the preschool.“Church of the Mountains knew how to foster a love of learning,” said Julie, “and for that Jon and I are just incredibly grateful.”Church of the Mountains preschoolers didn't learn to read at the school, Julie said, but they were encouraged to handle books, to recognize them and to turn the pages.“It gives them the building blocks that you don't realize are important until you look and see what has been built,” she said. Julie credits the preschool with her children's love of school in general.“Is it Monday?” she remembers them excitedly asking her.Morgan said her memories are of a preschool focused on allowing children to explore through friendship, song, play and art.“Open-ended art was a strong point and philosophy at Church of the Mountains. I never saw worksheets, flash cards or heard that kids did their art the ‘wrong way,'” she said.“My dad used to complain about glitter in the coffee cups,” said Lyon, who was wearing a pair of ruby-red, glitter Converse shoes. “Now my husband does. My husband is a teacher.”She let out another hearty laugh as she finished her story.“My dad was a CHP officer; for him it was a little more awkward.”