As of Thursday, all 32 staff members previously employed by Mount Hebron Nursery School in Ellicott City had decided not to return for the upcoming school year.

The wave of resignations followed the decision by Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church’s governing body, known as the Session, not to renew the contract of the nursery school’s long-serving director, Amy Schroeder. The decision goes into effect Monday, according to a June 21 letter sent to nursery school families.

“It was like somebody took the air out of my lungs,” Michelle Hoy, a former assistant teacher at Mount Hebron, said. “I knew right then, as soon as I got that email, that it was over. Because we have all stated that, without Amy, there’s no Mount Hebron Nursery School.”

Some parents have followed suit, pulling their children’s registrations for next year just a couple of months before it’s set to start. The seven-person Mount Hebron Nursery School Parent Group fundraises and throws events for the school community. Molly Maulding, the secretary of the group, said it sent a survey to roughly 160 families, 82 of whom said they would not be returning to the school next year.

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The parent group has compiled a list of 21 programs where parents could try to send their kids. But parents and teachers expressed concerns that many similar preschool programs are full, leaving parents scrambling for suitable options.

In Maryland and across the nation, demand for child care exceeds existing facility capacity, a situation worsened by the pandemic. In Howard County, available child care slots have declined by nearly 10% since 2020, according to an analysis of state education department data by the Local News Network. In an effort to stem the loss, the county on Friday announced it would expand its free Head Start program to children 2 and under from low-income families.

Mount Hebron Nursery School offered flexible schedules for some parents looking to send their kids to school for just a few hours two or three days a week. Parents looking for other options may find spots in Howard County, but it might come at an increased cost to cover all five days a week, or there may not be enough spots for families with multiple children.

Mount Hebron has been a part of Melanie Facchiano’s life since the 48-year-old attended the school, which states online that it serves children aged 2 to 5, herself. She has sent all three of her children through the school and remained working there in a variety of roles, most recently as a web master and online registration coordinator.

“A lot of us, once we’re connected to the school, we stay in some capacity,” Facchiano said. “You find generations of families coming back to Mount Hebron Nursery School year after year.”

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Facchiano said, in the week leading up to the announcement regarding Schroeder, 170 students were signed up for the 2024-25 school year. She said registration for the following school year typically opens in October and is full by January.

The Rev. Amy Carlson, the pastor at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, said in an emailed statement that the school is searching for a new director for the upcoming school year. She did not respond to follow-up questions regarding the loss of the entire school staff but said in her original statement that the church is unable to comment on personnel matters.

“We intend to continue to serve the families that depend on us to educate their children, and to continue to provide a safe, nurturing, and caring environment for our young learners, using the same curriculum that is currently in place,” Carlson said.

The church had found itself at odds with nursery school staff for years, though tensions ratcheted up over the past few months about issues such as financial transparency and the possible integration of faith-based education into the curriculum, according to staff members. The school, which has been around for nearly 60 years, operates in a nonsectarian manner.

In a May 10 letter sent to nursery school families, Carlson said the church and nursery school are “one single entity.” The nursery school was created by a ministry outreach program in the 1960s.

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Additionally, in the June 21 letter regarding the decision not to renew Schroeder’s contract, the church said it planned to administer the “current approved curriculum” for the upcoming school year but added it intended to “actively pursue a new director who embraces the nursery school as a Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church ministry and who will meet the needs of an Early Childhood Education program in Howard County.”

The Indeed posting for the job lists the pay as $55,000 to $75,000.

The church did not say why it chose not to bring Schroeder, who has been on the school’s staff since 2003 and took over as director in 2014, onboard for the 2024-25 school year. In an email, Schroeder directed all questions to her attorney, who did not respond to a request for comment.

In the fall, Maulding’s 3-year-old daughter will attend St. Alphonsus Preschool in Woodstock. Even though the school is 30 minutes from where Maulding lives, and she’ll have to juggle getting one child there and one to kindergarten, she feels lucky to have found a spot, given the limitations of affordable child care.

Although she’s a stay-at-home mom and could keep her kids with her, Maulding said it’s worth sending them to a preschool with “qualified, loving, nurturing teachers,” which is what she’d found in Mount Hebron.

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“A place where they feel at home, where they love going, where they meet new friends, is so key in the development of my children and a lot of children,” Maulding said. “I’m dreading telling them that their home away from home is no longer.”

Mackenzie Koepke, Molly Maulding and Matt Mindel, parents of Mount Hebron Nursery students, at the school's playground. (Ronica Edwards/The Baltimore Banner)

Laura Munns, the enrollment coordinator and business manager for the St. Alphonsus Preschool, said the school hired an additional teacher and opened a classroom to accommodate Mount Hebron families. But the around 25 additional children the school has taken on are all it can accommodate, she said.

“I have left over 20 people on a waitlist for a pre-K spot, and it feels terrible, but our infrastructure just can’t handle it,” Munns said. “We truly feel for these families who have been thrown into this flux right now. We’re glad we can welcome some great new families, but we never would want it to be in this circumstance.”

Hoy, the assistant teacher, has had three children complete their years at Mount Hebron. Her fourth and youngest child was set to begin his final year in the fall.

Although Hoy has found a new spot for him, she thinks many families won’t be as lucky because a lot of places she called were fully booked. And none of them would have given her what she had at Mount Hebron, she said.

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“Removing Amy from the equation is like removing the heart from a living thing. She was the heart and soul of the nursery school. She was our fearless leader, our friend, our confidant, our strength in times of need,” Hoy said. “It’s irreplaceable. We were a family; we were a community. ... Our families, the children, the staff, were all one.”

About the Education Hub

This reporting is part of The Banner’s Education Hub, community-funded journalism that provides parents with resources they need to make decisions about how their children learn. Read more.