This is NOT a story that ends with Happily Ever After.
Teachers at Green Acres Preschool in Odessa – many of whom have been there for 20+ years — have likely read tens of thousands of books that end with that comfortable close. But an era comes to an end June 14 and it will be “The End” for Marlene Green’s 43 and a half years of being the first education experience for children in the Middletown-Odessa-Townsend area.
It’s difficult to tell whether she’s ready for what comes next. “It’s my baby,” she says with a hint of emotion, before conceding that her own children have asked her, “don’t you think it’s time to retire.”
Some perspective: There are 21 students at Green Acres whose parents also attended. Mrs. Green, the founder and owner who turns 81 this year, hoped to make it to 45 years in business but that unfortunately is not going to happen.
Full disclosure before I go any further: My first two children attended Green Acres and Mrs. Green remembered both clearly 25 years later, so I was feeling a bit melancholy as I made the drive last week. Had I been a current parent, I would have joined the post-notification line that Mrs. Green compared to the “reception line at a funeral.” And let me add that I don’t personally know any parent who calls Mrs. Green by her first name so she will remain Mrs. Green throughout the rest of this column.
The 1.4 acres that Green Acres sits on U.S. 13 in Odessa officially went on the market early this year. The landlord – who Mrs. Green asked me not to identify because she says they had a great relationship and he “did what he could over the years” — notified her on Christmas Eve that he was putting it up for sale and offered her the chance to buy the property for $1.225 million so long as she accepted by New Year’s Eve.
Mrs. Green is profoundly sad – not angry – at the turn of events and says she would not have been able to buy the property and pay for the extensive repairs needed to bring it up to code (the property has been grandfathered from the requirements that other preschools in the area must adhere to because of how long she’s been there). The roof leaks. The bathrooms need actual stalls. And a new owner – if he or she doesn’t tear the whole thing down and start over – will have to replace the fridges and microwaves in each room with a full-blown kitchen.
There have been rough patches over the years. There have been “many” times when she didn’t take a paycheck or make her rent payments on time because building repairs took precedence. But through it all, she kept the ship running.
But there were challenges that brought her to a point where the cash flow didn’t allow her to buy the property and keep the school going.
- Changes to the school boundaries that took away some of the neighborhoods from where Green Acres historically attracted students.
- Before- and after-school care programs that offered Spanish immersion (Townsend) and Chinese (Spring Meadow) programs, among others.
- Decreases in summer enrollment thanks to what she described as “more than 100 summer camps in the MOT area” and challenges paying for buses to go on field trips with fewer students.
- Competition with other preschools that employ recent graduates at much lower salaries.
She acknowledges some questionable business decisions, first and foremost extending monthly tuition charges into the summer last year for teachers who are off for those months (she had to pay her teachers during that time).
Mrs. Green may also have been a victim in recent years of higher parent expectations in terms of security and student segmentation. For example, some parents preferred their half-day preschoolers not share space with the full-day daycare students. As for safety (her requirement for alarms is not as tight as newer schools), Mrs. Green points again to the experience of her teachers, saying they always took “great care” ensuring every student was accounted for and safe.
Mrs. Green will always be proud of the “warm, homey feel” of her school. She’s licensed for 176 students and while she historically had an overflow of applications, she’s still pretty full but with a slightly different mix of students.
But she just couldn’t roll the dice when offered the chance to go to a month-to-month lease pending a sale just before it was time to send out applications for the 2019-20 school year.
“I didn’t want to have to reimburse deposits and announcing the closing later might mean there weren’t alternatives available,” she said. “And it wouldn’t have been fair to my teachers.”
Her energy level at age 80 is impressive as she gives a tour of the school, clad in black and white Nikes. There’s a tribute planned for May 19 at the MOT Senior Center and a GoFundMe effort to fund a scholarship for a high-school senior who intends to major in Early Childhood has raised $2,418 of its $3,000 goal.
At the end of our conversation, Mrs. Green said something that made me sad. While I know she was talking about financials, I hope she fully understands the impact she’s had on her Green Acres Preschool students and parents over 43 years, and that readers reinforce that message to her:
“I started with nothing and I’m probably going to end with nothing.”