The State Closed an East Montpelier Preschool, Jolting Parents and Raising Questions | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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The State Closed an East Montpelier Preschool, Jolting Parents and Raising Questions

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Published November 22, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.


The East Montpelier farmhouse that housed AllTogetherNow! - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • The East Montpelier farmhouse that housed AllTogetherNow!

In 2004, friends and business partners Ellen Leonard and Janice Walrafen purchased a 19th-century farmhouse in East Montpelier to serve as the idyllic home base for AllTogetherNow!, a creative venture that included an arts nonprofit, summer camp and preschool.

Walrafen, a community organizer and visual artist, took the lead in running the arts nonprofit that organized free-spirited community gatherings that would become renowned in central Vermont, including All Species Day and the Enchanted Forest. Leonard, a former music teacher, served as director of the on-site school for 3- to 6-year-olds, a program that the state awarded its highest quality rating of five stars.

Half the farmhouse housed the preschool while the other half served as a living space for four tenants; the two entities shared a kitchen. In the basement, Walrafen set up a clay studio, where she made decorative tiles and crocks to sell. The building was a communal space that fostered interactions across generations.

When Leonard died at 61 last November after a short battle with cancer, ownership of the preschool transferred to a trust managed by her adult children. Rather than close the school, Leonard's family allowed a longtime AllTogetherNow! teacher to step up to serve as director. Sixteen preschoolers attended the program, where they spent the bulk of the day outside, exploring the 10-acre property, with views of Spruce Mountain and the Winooski River, and the 500-acre wooded reserve across the road.

But three weeks ago, parents of those young children were blindsided when the school announced it would close, leaving them scrambling for alternative childcare options. The state was revoking the preschool's permit to operate in the farmhouse over multiple code violations related to the building's heating systems, escape routes, and the inadequate separation of the preschool and living space.

While Vermont loses dozens of childcare programs each year for a variety of reasons, state officials said a forced shutdown related to facilities issues is extremely rare. But the closure also shines a light on more typical challenges in the troubled industry: complicated oversight, low margins for operators and little wiggle room for parents, who can lose childcare without warning. Advocates believe that some of those issues will become less severe as Act 76, the sweeping childcare bill passed by the legislature in June, rolls out over the next year.

Walrafen said she believes the preschool closure was a casualty of heavy-handed bureaucratic action and poor communication, and that the space, though unconventional, posed no danger to children.

State officials in the Division of Fire Safety think otherwise. They said they gave Walrafen ample opportunity to address "significant and long-standing life safety concerns" over the course of two years. When "it became apparent that the needed building upgrades were not going to be completed before entering the winter months, if at all," Division of Fire Safety regional manager Ben Moffatt explained in an email to Seven Days, there was no option but to close it down.

That was all news to parents. School directors never alerted them to the state scrutiny — or the need for urgent repairs — and publicly available Department for Children and Families inspection reports dating back to 2019 make no mention of any fire code violations.

Parents did not learn about facility problems until the day the school said it needed to close, according to Carrie Childs, whose 3-year-old attended AllTogetherNow!

The Child Development Division, part of DCF, oversees the state's approximately 670 licensed childcare centers and home-based programs. But it was the state's Division of Fire Safety, a separate agency, that ultimately doomed AllTogetherNow! In a statement, the agency said it inspected the farmhouse two years ago — the owners were then considering a project to install backup batteries on the property — and found multiple violations. Since then, state officials said, they provided the owners time to develop "corrective action plans with achievable timelines."

Some of the upgrades they requested, according to inspection reports provided to Seven Days, were the installation of an automatic fire alarm system, adequate egress windows on the second-floor bedrooms and a cooking hood with a fire suppression system above the kitchen stovetop.

The Division of Fire Safety said it "understands the need to balance the continued use of a facility with the timeframes it takes to obtain contractors, secure quotes and source funding for needed upgrades."

However, the statement continued, "little progress has been made by the building owners to bring the building into substantial compliance with its current operation as a mixed-use preschool, residential occupancy, and business."

The agency said it gave the building's owners 60 days to show progress toward making certain improvements. That window expired on October 31.

Yet that date was when the Child Development Division first learned of any issues at the school. Asked about the lack of communication, Janet McLaughlin, deputy commissioner of the division, said her agency and the Division of Fire Safety plan to review their "collaboration protocol regarding the safety of buildings housing child care programs."

When asked why the state Child Development Division awarded AllTogetherNow! five stars despite the serious facilities issues, McLaughlin said the process does not require childcare licensors to "look at items that are basic licensing requirements, like compliance with the standards set by the Office of Fire Safety." AllTogetherNow! had achieved the "quality markers" needed for a five-star rating, she said.

Janice Walrafen - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Janice Walrafen

Walrafen said she was surprised by how abruptly the state revoked the farmhouse's occupancy permit. Since purchasing the building almost two decades ago, Walrafen said, she and Leonard had always complied with the Division of Fire Safety's requests. But beginning in 2021, she said, inspectors called for more aggressive action, including updating the fire alarm system and installing a sprinkler system that would reach all three floors of the building. The well that serves the property is too shallow to support that level of fire prevention, Walrafen said.

Financial and administrative constraints, and the upheaval caused by Leonard's illness and death, made it difficult to create a plan for complying with the stringent requirements, she said. Walrafen acknowledged that she may have overlooked several emails from the Division of Fire Safety this fall because her administrative assistant fell ill and she was busy planning for the annual Enchanted Forest event, a guided walk along a jack-o'-lantern-lighted trail in Hubbard Park that features art, music, song and magic.

In light of the revocation, Walrafen said it's unlikely that a preschool will ever be able to operate in the farmhouse again. She said she's committed to finding ways to welcome young children into the space in the future — through playgroups or music classes, perhaps — as a way to honor her late friend, Leonard.

"I'm praying something new can be born that fits in a home environment," she said.

Before that happens, though, Walrafen has to raise around $63,000 for upgrades to the farmhouse to ensure that the tenants, art studio and summer camps can continue using the space. Those upgrades include replacing the building's boiler, putting in egress windows upstairs, and installing fire-rated walls and doors in the basement and pottery studio.

Walrafen has begun a fundraising campaign and applied for an American Rescue Plan Act grant from the Town of East Montpelier. In an email sent to supporters last week, AllTogetherNow! asked for financial support, volunteers to help with "construction and code work," a lawyer who would work pro bono, a grant writer, and new nonprofit board members.

After getting over their initial shock of the closure, the parents — architects, state workers, builders and journalists among them — quickly banded together to figure out next steps. They held brainstorming sessions, wrote an op-ed that appeared on VTDigger.org and toured empty buildings in Montpelier that might serve as temporary spaces for the school.

The effort was "astounding," said Childs, one of the parents. She said she was also impressed with how the state responded; several officials came on a tour of one of the potential spaces to make sure it was up to code.

Ultimately, nine former AllTogetherNow! preschoolers were able to find space in another local childcare center — Montpelier Children's House. Due to staffing shortages, the five-star program had an empty classroom that the students and four of their teachers will use.

"It is very good news that we were able to make space," Children's House director Samara Mays wrote in an email. "But there should not be any assumption that there is sufficient capacity in Montpelier's child care system."

Mays said she's hopeful that as Act 76 goes into effect, capacity will grow. But, for now, she said, "local solutions on the ground are still important."

Dan Wheeler's 3-year-old began attending Children's House on November 15, just a day after AllTogetherNow! closed its doors. He said he's relieved that his family was able to find quality care so quickly. Most importantly, he said, his son seems happy there — among many familiar friends and teachers and lots of new toys.

The original print version of this article was headlined "School's Out | The state abruptly closed a long-running East Montpelier preschool, jolting parents and raising questions"

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