Five tiny graduates gathered in the sanctuary of the historic St. John’s Baptist Church, 1232 Tasker St, on Friday to solemnize their promotion to kindergarten.
The ceremony not only marked the completion of pre-k but commemorated the 80th anniversary of the Passyunk Square church’s nursery school.
While the milestone was a cause for celebration, it concurrently sparked some consternation, as last week’s event could possibly serve as St. John’s final nursery school commencement.
With only nine students enrolled this school year and only four expected to return in September, the program is facing a potential termination after eight decades.
“We’re not going to make a decision just based on numbers alone,” said transitional pastor Rev. Dr. Lyndell D. Backues, an associate professor of economic development at Eastern University, who recently took on leadership of the church alongside prominent evangelical Baptist spiritual leader Tony Campolo. “We’re going to make a decision in regard to, strategically, how do we serve? But, we always have to keep our eye on the fact of what can we afford?”
Originally established as an outreach program for children of Italian immigrants, the youth organization was founded about 20 years after the church opened as The First Italian Baptist Church of Philadelphia in March 1921.
In the decades following, the nursery school encompassed different frameworks, including separate morning and afternoon programs, which eventually morphed into a full-time pre-k about 15 years ago.
Up until the last few years, the program was averaging around 25 students per class. Recently, though, the numbers have steadily dropped to fewer than 10 children.
The church’s leaders say the plummet could be attributed to PHLpreK, a free citywide program funded by Philadelphia Beverage Tax, which was proposed by Mayor Kenney and passed by the City Council in 2016.
“We figure it’s related to that,” said Pam Powles, St. John’s former director of music and the former supervisor of the nursery school who was involved with the church for 30 years. “Because now, kids can have free pre-k, and no matter how good your program is, you can’t compete with free if you’re charging.”
The PHLpreK program offers about 2,250 students spots each year with plans to expand to 5,500 seats by fall 2023, according to city data.
Powles says, over the last few years, some students transferred from St. John’s to the city-funded program.
“Now, you’re left with parents who primarily want to put their kids into a program where they want them to be here – whether it’d be virtue of location or the Christian emphasis of it…Our numbers are down, and it’s a tough thing,” Backues said. “But, the kids are delighted with what we’re left with and the program continues to operate in a very quality way.”
With only four students enrolled for next year, the nursery school faces financial concerns, because the ideal break-even number to sustain the program is around seven students, according to Powles.
These funds include teachers’ income, cleaning and maintenance staff and utilities to operate the program during school hours.
But, the nursery school tuition also acts as a revenue stream for the church itself, as it, too, has been struggling to keep its doors open.
“That’s been part of our problem,” Backues said. “That’s what Tony (Campolo) and I are trying to do – is to keep front and center the service and the community and the spiritual focus. That’s what this church is about, but if you don’t pay your bills, you’re in trouble.”
After the Rev. David M. Powles completed his 29-year tenure at St. John’s in December, the Philadelphia Baptist Association asked Backues and Campolo to financially and spiritually revive the South Philadelphia church as it seeks out a new full-time pastor, especially in light of the congregation’s shifting demographics.
In developing the church’s new phase, Backues and Campolo determined a cornerstone concept that includes reprising St. John’s role as a safe haven for immigrants. The church is comprised of a diverse group of members, including Italian-Americans, African-Americans, Indonesians, Burmese, Hispanics and Haitians.
The duo strives to achieve this objective through various forms of outreach and in-house programming, including the resurrection of the nursery school.
“As we’re going to see today, the quality is there,” Backues said. “We just have to deal with volume.”
Along with rudimentary curriculums, such as reading and writing, St. John’s nursery school also weaves gardening, games and even performance art into its everyday lessons.
Lead teacher Amy Gardner, who started with the program last year, uses techniques from her theater background to foster an out-of-the-box approach to education
“My goal for them is to have them think for themselves…All of my kids are smart,” Gardner said. “It gets frustrating. There are tears, but I believe in them and I want them to believe in themselves, so I gently push them to go further. I want to expand their minds. I want them to love learning.”
Gardner also expresses concerns for the fate of the nursery school, stressing the importance of keeping neighborhood-based programs like this one alive.
But, despite the numbers, the family at St. John’s is optimistic about the future of the 80-year program.
“I know God has a purpose for St. John’s in this community,” Powles said. “It’s been here for over 100 years – the church itself, and I think it’s going to continue as long as He still has a purpose and the same thing with the nursery school. So, even though a lot of the past 29 and a half years, there were some hard times and things got really tight, God’s always seen the church through. And, he’s always seen the nursery school through. I just have faith he’s going to keep doing that.”
To register to the nursery school, call (215) 334-1282.