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Portland preschool at risk of closing

Pre-pandemic, the preschool served up to 250 children. Looking for space that'll accommodate all those kids has been difficult.

PORTLAND, Ore. — One of the largest preschools in Portland, Childswork Learning Center, is at risk of shutting down. It’s shedding light on a bigger question: are there enough preschool options in Multnomah County for families that need it?

The executive director of the preschool, Crystal Gwyn, said the preschool has been around since 1984 and for the last 15 years it’s been running out of St. Stephen Catholic Church in southeast Portland. Gwyn said the preschool was notified that its lease, which extended into 2026, was being terminated five years early. Gwyn said she wasn't given a reason, but there were issues they were trying to resolve around parking.

“We have until this July 31st,” said Gwyn.

She said pre-pandemic, the preschool served up to 250 children and had more than 40 full time staff members. Looking for space that'll accommodate all those people has been difficult.

“With little children you have to have one bathroom for every 15 children. You have to have 35 square feet of indoor space. You have to have a 1:10 ratio. You have to have 75 square feet of outdoor space for children,” Gwyn said.
“What we have found, is absolutely nothing to be honest.”

Adding to the burden for the nonprofit is the high cost of renting a space in Portland.

“We did find one space in northeast Portland where we could probably do sort of half of our campus at and it was literally six times what we pay per square foot now,” she said.

Gwyn said a lot of people have told her about office and retail spaces that are available in Portland, but those spaces wouldn’t meet the requirements preschools must have in place. Gwyn said worst case scenario, if they can't find a place soon, they'll close. 

A Multnomah County spokesperson says the number of preschool providers has dropped significantly by more than a third during the pandemic from 1,242 in January of 2020 to roughly 800 in April.

“Not only have they shut down during the pandemic, but they shut permanently,” said Gwyn regarding a number of preschool programs.

She said many preschools couldn’t keep afloat financially after being closed for a time during the pandemic. In fact, opening back up was difficult as well since preschools had to invest in protective measures.

“The cost of reopening was astronomical,” said Gwyn.

“We spent $8,800 on touchless faucets, soap dispensers, PPE (personal protective equipment), things to make the school safe to reopen,” she said.

In November, voters in the county approved a universal preschool program. We asked the county how it plans to proceed with the plan, especially with fewer providers.

Ryan Yambra, a spokesperson for Multnomah County said the county is confident preschool for all is achievable and is working with providers and families for solutions.

A statement from the county said in part, "Multnomah County is working with local, state and federal partners to provide relief to families and providers. That includes facilitating access to federal relief funds, business supports for providers, and funding for workforce development."

Gwyn is hopeful the help will come through.

“There isn’t space in Portland. So someone needs to figure out how we’re gonna make it all work together,” said Gwyn

“I don't know how people are going to go back to work without childcare and that’s just the bottom line.”

She said she's in the process of trying to see if another, nearby church will allow the preschool to operate on its property. However, it’s not zoned to be a preschool so improvements would need to be made in order to turn the space into a preschool. It also doesn't have enough space to accommodate all the children who would typically be enrolled in the program.

“Our best case scenario at this point is at least keep a presence in the neighborhood with three to four classes at that place while we launch a capital campaign and try to find land to try and develop something,” said Gwyn.

We reached out to Gretchen Barnes, the real estate attorney representing the parish where the preschool currently operates.

“Under the terms of their lease with Childswork, either party had the right to end the lease with one-year’s advance notice. The parish exercised that right last July 31st. The parish has other plans for the space more directly connected to its core ministry,” said Barnes in an e-mail.

On the Childswork Learning Center website, a message reads: 

In order to offer stability for our families and offer enrollment, Childswork must secure a new space immediately. We need 7500+ ft2 with an outdoor play area. We face numerous zoning and occupancy regulations, but are willing to research any viable options. In our current location, we have fostered strong bonds with our surrounding neighbors, and we want to continue serving these families. If you know of a space in SE/NE Portland that could serve our needs, please contact us as soon as possible: crystalg@childswork.org or 503-234-3611.

RELATED: New Day School: Oregon's first net-zero preschool

More KGW reporter stories here


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