Churches work together to save historic preschool

Churches work together  to save historic preschool
The building that housed South Jacksonville Presbyterian Preschool for generations will be demolished as part of a new residential development. The school will be renamed The Preschool at San Marco and will relocate to Southside Baptist Church.

Thanks to the generosity of a neighboring church, a historic San Marco preschool has been saved from the wrecking ball.

South Jacksonville Presbyterian Preschool, which has served at least three generations of San Marco area children over 70 years, is moving to Southside Baptist Church. The preschool building, currently on the campus of South Jacksonville Presbyterian Church, is one of several buildings that the church has under agreement to be sold to build a 143-unit residential complex and parking garage on the property. If all goes according to plan, the buildings should be demolished sometime early next year with a groundbreaking ceremony to be held in April or May 2020.

“We’re opening a preschool and hiring their staff,” said Southside Baptist Senior Pastor Dr. Gary Webber. “We are starting a new organization legally because of the licensing requirements.”

Up until mid-July, South Jacksonville Presbyterian Preschool Director Beth Martin had no idea whether her school would open in the fall. When Southside Baptist Church officials heard about the Presbyterian Church’s plans to develop its property, they immediately offered space in their church facility to accommodate the Presbyterian school’s staff and students for next year.

“This isn’t something we were looking for,” said Webber. “Our intention is to preserve the legacy of this great school. Our relationship with South Jacksonville Presbyterian is very strong. We’ve been minister partners within the community long before this. It made a lot of sense for us to partner with them and allow the preschool to move over.”

Presently the preschool is scheduled to hold its orientation on Monday, August 19, on the Presbyterian Church campus. The school will most likely transfer from its old location to Southside Baptist, located at 1435 Atlantic Blvd., over the Christmas holidays so the children can start the new year afresh in their new digs, said Southside Baptist Executive Pastor Scott Badgett.

“We want to make the timing of the move what best fits with South Jacksonville Presbyterian’s families and teachers,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Southside Baptist has set up a new legal entity to accommodate the school, which will be named The Preschool at San Marco, Inc. Already the Baptist church has expanded its playground to three times its previous size and is working to get a Certificate of Use and a required license from the Florida Department of Children and Families. The Certificate of Use is needed because “use of the preschool area as an educational occupancy effectively changes the use of the church from a strictly assembly occupancy to a mixed-occupancy use,” said Kevin L. Jones, division chief and fire marshal for Jacksonville in a letter to Webber.  

Although both churches were onboard immediately with the idea of moving the school, it was not all smooth sailing. Upon contacting an architect so that the church could apply for its Certificate of Use, the church was informed its structure did not meet up with new fire standards governing a new preschool. The major issue was that, although the classrooms Southside Baptist already has in place all have windows and doors, the windows and doors are internal, covered by an atrium, which is contrary to the requirement that doors and windows open to the outside for increased safety, said Webber.

The fact that the windows to the preschool classrooms at Southside Baptist Church look out to an atrium was at first problematic and thought to be contrary to the city’s fire code, nearly preventing the school from relocating into its new digs.
The fact that the windows to the preschool classrooms at Southside Baptist Church look out to an atrium was at first problematic and thought to be contrary to the city’s fire code, nearly preventing the school from relocating into its new digs.

“We were told to have an architect look at the plans and sign off on it, and the architect couldn’t sign off because it wasn’t according to code,” Webber said, noting the church consulted two architects and received the same answer. “We couldn’t get anyone to come out and look at it, and that was our big problem.

“Due to the basic design of our building, this rule created the need for us to receive some sort of variance,” he continued. “Our facilities are safe. We have sprinklers and all sorts of things, but one of the things they require is that preschool rooms be on an exterior wall with a window to the outside. That hasn’t always been a requirement. The fixes weren’t possible. We would have had to tear down our facility to open up the rooms to the outside, and that wasn’t going to happen,” Webber said. “There was no solution other than to receive some kind of special exemption.”

To try to help, Webber reached out to District 5 Councilwoman LeAnna Cumber, At-Large District 4 Councilman Matt Carlucci, who is an alum of South Jacksonville Presbyterian Preschool, and Mayor Lenny Curry to see if anything could be done. Cumber called Jacksonville’s Fire Chief, who asked Jones to quickly do an onsite visit to look over the situation. Once at the site, the situation was quickly resolved.  

After conducting the site inspection and researching the Florida Fire Prevention Code, Jones noted that the church had an “approved, supervised automatic sprinkler system,” allowing it to meet code. “Since the church is fully sprinklered, the issues involving direct access to the outside or a need for a rescue window is not an issue,” Jones said in his letter.

“The fire marshal came through and he was very thorough,” said Webber. “We were really amazed at how quickly it happened, and we are very grateful to everyone in the City who helped keep this little preschool open. It’s a real testament to government working.”

Having the interdenominational Christian-based preschool move to Southside Baptist will be a great advantage to the rapidly growing San Marco community, said Webber. With so many apartments and condominiums being built, more children will most likely be moving into the area, making the availability of spaces at local preschools a premium. Southside Baptist has the capacity to seat 121 preschoolers, twice as many as the 60 that South Jacksonville Presbyterian Preschool was able to accommodate.  

As part of the deal, the Presbyterian preschool’s director and eight teachers will take up business at the new location, which will offer four classes – one each for children ages one, two, three and a Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten (VPK) class for four-year-olds. Also, much of the preschool furniture, playground equipment will also be relocated, said Badgett. “Our rooms do have some furniture already so, between what they have and what we have, we will take the best of everything,” he said. 

South Jacksonville Presbyterian Preschool will also contribute any funds it has in its preschool coffers to support the school and its teaching staff, Badgett said. “The money they have will help us adapt the space without any delay or additional burden upon Southside Baptist to make the conversion. 

“We’re not wanting to make any major changes at this point,” he continued. “We think they have been highly successful. We hope, as a church, we can enhance what they’ve already done such a good job developing.” 

A couple of enhancements the Baptists have in mind is creating the ability to have parents pay tuition online, to live-stream online the children’s performances so grandparents and other relatives throughout the country may be able to tune in, and to offer scholarships to children whose parents might not be able to afford tuition, Badgett said. “It is in our heart that we want it to be missional so that we can have it available to those who cannot afford the entire amount,” he said.

Southside Baptist Church, which is celebrating 80 years in the community this year, has never had a preschool of its own. The closest it has come was a few years ago when, for three years, it held VPK classes for Burmese refugee children to help them assimilate into the community. 

“We believe this is a God thing. It’s wonderful we don’t have to go through the expense of trying to develop a foundation of parents and students to get something like this going, because that can be quite expensive,” Badgett said, noting that, even with all the uncertainty and upheaval, not a single registered student has dropped out.

“That speaks of the closeness of those families and the teachers, and most of the teachers have such longevity with the school. It speaks to the quality of what families have seen in year’s past. We hope to continue that,” he said.

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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