Pooh Corner Preschool in Minturn closes after three decades
Parents were given just two days notice of the closure
Just before 10:30 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 7, parents and families of the Pooh Corner Preschool in Minturn received an email signed by the school’s director Gwen Scola that alerted them the school would be closing on Thursday, Aug. 10.
The email states that “constant staffing challenges have made it impossible to continue to operate.”
The school, which has been open for around 30 years, is licensed by the state to serve 35 children (between the ages of 1 and 6) in three classrooms. It was one of the local providers that had a handful of slots available for universal preschool, which is set to start this month.
Scola said that while staffing challenges have been persistent over the past few years, the final straw came when a teacher gave notice just a few days before leaving the school. This, she said, left the school unable to meet the state-required staff-to-student ratios.
“If we don’t have qualified staff to put in the classrooms who have met all of these expectations and/or regulations, then we can’t have the classroom open. So it ties our hands,” Scola said. “It’s a really tough industry. It’s difficult to sustain.”
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Scola had been with the school for nearly 11 years and said she was in the process of transitioning out of her role when the decision to close was made.
“We were in the process of me transitioning out, and the people who were going to be taking over were making the decision whether or not they were going to keep the place open or not,” Scola said, adding that it was a longtime teacher and another community member who made the decision.
That community member declined to comment, stating that she didn’t hold an official role with the school. The Vail Daily was unable to reach the teacher for comment.
Still, the decision was a difficult one, Scola noted.
“It was 11 years that I loved my kids and had incredible families and really created a beautiful community,” Scola said.
While the facility was not part of Eagle County School District’s early childhood program, the district owned the building.
“As the property owner where Pooh Corner was located, Eagle County School District is also challenged to determine the future of the facility and is researching options for a new infant, toddler, and preschool provider at this location,” wrote Sandy Farrell, chief operating officer for the Eagle County School District, in a statement.
Farrell added that it already has two providers that have shown interest in either leasing and/or purchasing the property.
“We have been in contact with the State and Eagle County licensing in an attempt to help get through the licensing process to restore services as quickly as possible, however, the district doesn’t control the pace of the licensing process and it can take some time,” the statement continued. “We understand the urgency and need for services in the community and intend to do what is best for the community, the school district, and taxpayers.”
A ‘next to impossible’ situation
For the parents and families impacted by the closure — who are already intimately aware of the challenges of finding local child care — the news was nothing short of devastating.
Elise Holmes was just one of these parents. Both of Holmes’ two children — one 2-year-old and one 5-year-old — started attending Pooh Corner when they were 1.
Finding a preschool for both kids, Holmes said was “next to impossible.”
Once they were enrolled Pooh Corner, she said she felt “really lucky” to find a school that both kids were happy at, Holmes said. At the time of the closure, one of her kids was attending the school five days a week while the other was going three days a week
“I’m essentially losing eight full days of child care every week,” Holmes said.
The letter announcing the school’s closure did provide parents with contacts at the Early Childhood Partners and the Eagle County Department of Human Services to assist both in finding a new facility and for possible financial assistance.
For parents, however, they know that finding care is rarely that simple. Annie Larkin, who enrolled her 22-month-old at Pooh Corner in March, said that she began signing up her son for “all the waitlists the day after I found out I was pregnant.”
They didn’t find the right placement for around two years when their son was approaching 14 months.
Not only that, but the cost of care can be so prohibitive and expensive.
“We were very fortunate that before we had a child, we saved money, but it took a lot of our resources — time and money — to maintain stable child care for that first little bit,” Larkin said. “If we had not been offered four days elsewhere, I don’t even know what we would be doing right now for child care.”
“I’m happy to pay his tuition at school because I want to support the teachers and for the teachers to be paid adequately so they can stay in the valley so that we can continue to keep these schools open,” Larkin said.
When the closure was announced, parents only had a few days to assess their options.
Holmes, alongside her husband, runs two businesses in EagleVail: an apparel company, Ketsol, and a trail map company, Mtns Co. She said that while they did have to close their stores more days a week because of the loss of care, they still felt fortunate to have that opportunity.
“I look at so many of these parents that don’t have potentially some of the flexibility. We’re going to close our store another day or two a week because of the child care issue,” she said. “A lot of people don’t have that option. If I was working at my old job that I didn’t own, I would be fired for having to take this much time off.”
Holmes said that she knew that there had been a “real issue finding teachers,” but that the closure still felt like a “bomb for so many parents.”
“We could see that the school is having issues, but to be told three days before the school is going to close? It’s not like we had any warning or anything other than that,” Holmes said.
Larkin, however, was in a slightly different position. She noted that a few months into her son attending Pooh Corner, her son was offered four days a week of care at another local school. At this point, she said “the red flags started flying” at Pooh Corner and decided to transition their son to the other school for four days a week. At the time of the closure, he was only attending Pooh Corner on Monday.
Larkin said she didn’t even hear about the closure from the school, but from a previous nanny who saw a post on Facebook about it: “I never received the email or anything like that, and a lot of parents didn’t.”
One of the “red flags” was that the parents received a letter from the Colorado Department of Early Childhood that the school was being put on probation. Larkin said she did not receive the first letter but reviewed the report on Colorado Shines after receiving the second letter from the regulator. After reviewing the second report, she reached out to the state regulator to try to understand and then help to fix some of the issues cited in the inspections.
Larkin said she already had been putting in hours volunteering in the classroom to help keep the school open and also put in “significant” work on the playground to fix some of the compliance issues reported by the state regulator.
“I ended up fixing the stuff that I could that was noted in the report. I ended up spending my own money to do that. I was volunteering in the classroom to keep the school open, I wanted to support the teachers and other parents because I had the flexibility and support at work to do it” Larkin said.
For Holmes and her family, the school closing was the final straw for sticking it out in the valley.
“We’re actually just going to move out of the valley,” she said. “The valley has been really hard for us for the past couple of years, and so we’re actually going to close both of our retail locations, we’re moving to Montana and starting over.”
They had been discussing moving their businesses for a while, but a recent rent hike and then the preschool closure prompted the move to happen sooner rather than later.
“We’ve already talked to our employees, but we’re letting go of our employees. It’s going to be two more empty spaces in the valley of businesses, too,” Holmes said.
Ultimately, Holmes simply summed up the preschool closing as “just sad.”
“All of us parents, it was a community that we deeply loved and (we) deeply loved the teachers,” she said.
Keeping up with regulations
Just as hard as it is to find a child care facility, running and operating one also comes with its challenges.
While dealing with persistent staffing issues, Pooh Corner was issued a 6-month probationary license effective April 17, 2023, by the Colorado Department of Early Childhood. The state department told the Vail Daily that “the Department has received notification from the director that the program is voluntarily closing its license on August 11, 2023.”
Scola also confirmed that the closure was related to staffing and was not related to the probationary status of the school’s license.
According to the department, a facility agrees to stipulations and conditions it must follow while on probation that are unique to each license based on the reason for the adverse action. Per state requirements, parents of the school were notified of this change in license at the time.
Prior to the probationary action being taken, the facility received a supervisory visit — also known as an annual inspection — from the state department. According to the Colorado Shines report from this supervisory visit report, there were 35 observed violations at the time of the visit.
The vast majority of these observations were paperwork and personnel related, including notes that there was “no evidence” in files checked of certain documentation like background checks, training and other human resource-type forms as well as missing health forms from student files. There were some that addressed the facility itself, including notes about “uncovered electrical outlets” and “several high-risk areas” on the playground.
Most of these were resolved as the specific violations do not show up on future reports, but throughout the other inspections, similar file discrepancies are observed.
“There were never any incidences of abuse or neglect or anything like that. It was always just repeat sort of admin issues,” Scola said of these observed violations.
On Colorado Shines, the facility has no listed complaints made against the program, investigations following child abuse or neglect assessments nor any investigations into reported injuries for the reported three-year period on the website.
In the months since April, the school had four probationary visits and one limited supervisory visit — an “inspection that occurs when the facility has been submitted for adverse action” — from the department.
In the four probationary visits — which took place on May 15, June 6, June 30 and July 25 — there were a few observed violations that continued to be reported. This included one teacher that was working in an older toddler classroom for whom, according to the report, there was no evidence of them meeting “Early Childhood Teacher qualifications.” This was observed in all four reports.
In the final two reports, it was denoted that another teacher was working in the school with “no evidence of a file” for that teacher.
Additionally, these final visits call out several observed violations on the playground including “exposed metal door hinges of a dilapidated child-sized wooden play kitchen,” in the final two reports as well as exposed bolts and nails and gaps between fences in all four reports
In discussing the violations listed in these reports, Scola said that the challenge in her role as director is that there is a “vicious circle of finding that qualified staff so that I’m able to do the admin things.”
“Staffing challenges take up 100% of your time,” she said.
Scola added that when there weren’t enough qualified staff — or qualified substitutes, which she said were next to impossible to find in Eagle County — she would have to step into the classroom.
“Then I’m in the position where I’m in the classroom 40 to 50 hours a week, and not able to get that nitty-gritty, very detailed work done,” Scola said.
“When push comes to shove, our attention is going to be on the kids and the safety of the kids, and not so much on the minutiae of making sure that every single page has got a signature on it.”
In her 11 years as director of Pooh Corner, Scola said that these regulations and the director handbook have only gotten bigger and more complex.
“Just the regulations that you had to meet my handbook went from 18 pages to 45 pages because it’s all full of the policies that we had to follow and that kind of thing,” she said.
Scola noted that COVID-19 did bring increased attention and resources to the challenges in early childhood education. This, she noted, allowed the school to receive around $50,000 in grants over the past two years to do some major renovations at the school. This included having all the floors redone, replacing air filters, and having an EPA-certified team come in and complete lead mitigation, all of which was done to make sure the school was following “all of those rules and regulations for running child care center.”
“These were things that I was wanting to get done since the first day that I got in there,” Scola said.
After all this work, Scola described the probationary license as “a kick in the stomach.”
“We had just done everything we could in that past year, just really putting ourselves flat out there,” she said.