Facing closure after a half a century, Grace Methodist Nursery School bids farewell


Few places occupy the same community significance in Valley Stream as Grace United Methodist Nursery School has done for more than half a century.

Scores of students, often the children of former students, have graced its halls. In its most recent years, it has drawn in a diverse crowd of families of varying faiths and cultures; not to mention some with unique early language and learning needs.

Its defining motto, “Play is the work of children,” has been praised by countless families who say their child has reaped the rewards of learning through hands-on play under the watch of a nurturing staff.


The Takeaway

  • After more than half a century of serving the Valley Stream community, Grace United Methodist Nursery School is facing closure.
  • The decision to end the school's operations, although not explicitly stated in the school's announcement to cancel classes for the 2024-2025 school year, was later confirmed by Director Diane Panzarino.
  • The school's enrollment has been steadily declining, exacerbated by the availability of universal pre-K in Valley Stream public schools, making it financially unsustainable to go on. 

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Its storied run seems to be drawing to a close at a particularly rough time for many faith-based childcare programs on Long Island. 

The news broke when Grace United Methodist Nursery announced on its private Facebook page that the childhood education center would “not be offering programs for the 2024-2025 school year.” While the post said the school’s committee had reached that decision after weighing a host of factors, it did not say in certain terms that the nursery school was closing down. It didn’t have to.

Perceptive Facebook readers took the post as an acknowledgment of the school nearing its end; their comments poured in. Many of them, identifying themselves as alumni or the parents of alumni, shared fond memories, thanked school staff, and mourned over the impending loss.

Director Diane Panzarino did not attempt to downplay or dance around the question of whether the end is fast approaching for Grace Methodist— it is.

“Yes, we worded it as saying we weren’t offering classes next school year,” she said. “But for all intents and purposes, it’s closing down.”

Panzarino, with wiry energy in her voice, was working away at her desk on a recently cool Friday morning, reading glasses in hand, dressed in a casual sweater with a large gold and silver heart pendant that hung around her neck.

She and her executive assistant, Grace Porti were extracting the well-wishing words from Facebook readers and compiling them into pages they planned to make into a book to give out to the staff as a farewell memento from the community.

“When you read what this school has meant to so many different people, it’s very moving,” she said.


Universal pre-K's unintended consequence

Panzarino said she was saddened by the reality of it all, but not surprised.

“I’ve been seeing the writing on the wall for some time now,” said Panzarino. “For a while now, we had 150 to 160 kids enrolled in the building and it’s been gradually decreasing, then Covid-19 hit and enrollment dropped considerably.”

Enrollment numbers have been steadily on the decline. This year, the school’s enrollment is at 45 students, down from 80 students in 2022. And much of that drop, Panzarino claimed, circles back to stiff competition by the expansion of universal pre-K in Valley Stream public schools.

“Once UPK became available to almost every four-year-old in the community, it’s really cut into our services and we can’t survive alone on the enrollment of three-year-olds,” said Panzarino. “It’s just not feasible.”


Saying goodbye

As preparations for closure were being made in the administrative office, on the upper floor, the school day went on as usual.

The softly lit rooms remained filled with books and toys. The walls were still padded with pictures of notable alumni, clipped newspaper articles of the school’s memorable moments, and artworks and drawings passed on by former students. And the children could still be heard playing and laughing together with no reason to think that their beloved school will close.

That stunned realization that this was, in all probability, the school’s final six months was painfully clear on the faces of the staff. Their futures were in flux. But while they could find other jobs, many noted it is hard to fathom finding a sense of community like the kind at Grace Methodist.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever find a place like this again,” said assistant teacher Christine Schultheiss. “I’ve learned so much about kids and psychology and early childhood education and I love working with this age group. Even as my kids grow up, I get to come here and see little ones.”

“What I’ll miss is seeing the children’s growth, how far they’ve come from the start to the end of the program,” said longtime teacher Christina Breen.“In the beginning, they can barely walk without stepping on each other, and by the end of it, at graduation, they’re just more confident and they love to perform.”

Other teachers, stifling back tears, expressed that they were quietly heartbroken.

“This place has been my second home,” said teacher Christine Baez who was first a parent who brought her son to a Mommy and Me class at the school. “I feel as if the children are my own. I have a child with special needs so I can pick up very quickly when children need services and where to get them, and I’ve enjoyed providing that guidance and trust.”

“Everybody that works here, and has worked here, basically, with a few exceptions, has come here as a parent of a student,” said Panzarino. “It’s personal for them. That’s why they’re just walking around like somebody had just died.”

But that grief has also given way to a newfound determination.

Teachers are stepping into the classrooms set on squeezing every last ounce of time they have left with the children, noted Panzarino. The director is also insistent on crossing out every last item on the school’s list of annual programs and activities for the students for the 2023-24 school year.

At present, nothing but a last-minute miracle could reverse the school’s current course, admitted Panzarino. In the absence of divine intervention, however, she would do what she could for the staff and the students: being their emotional anchor and sharing each bittersweet moment to the last.

Only when asked about the faith that has driven her to serve as the school’s director for decades did her stolid composure almost break.

“I’ve considered it a calling,” said Panzarino with watery eyes. “I really think I’m doing God’s work here which is to love others and help one another in becoming the best version of themselves.”

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