By Lindsay Peyton
How a 40-year old church pre-school escaped closure
Closing the doors at Spring Woods Christian Academy seemed like the only option. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, operating the pre-school at Spring Woods UMC in north Houston was creating a deficit that the church could not absorb. Senior Pastor, the Rev. Steffon Arrington thought he had exhausted every possibility to keep the school open – until nothing short of a modern day miracle occurred.
What transpired over the past two months at Spring Woods Christian Academy brings the story of Jesus walking on water to Arrington’s mind. Jesus asks his disciples to take courage and join him on the lake, and Peter disembarks from the boat, walking on water as well.
Then Peter becomes afraid and starts to sink. Jesus asks him, “Why did you doubt?”
“We took our eyes off Jesus, and, when we did that, the waves became overwhelming,” Arrington said. “Our eyes have been refocused. We’re starting to brave the storm and again and move closer to Christ.”
The preschool at Spring Woods UMC started as a mother’s day out program about 40 years ago. Eventually it evolved into Spring Woods Christian Academy, offering a Christian education, complete with Spanish, art, music and chapel, for infants through kindergarteners. In 2018, about 40 students were enrolled and in 2019, the number of students increased to 50.
School shut down
When COVID-19 struck Houston last spring, the school shut down and remained closed through the semester. Teachers provided packets and assignments to keep students busy while they were learned from home. The instructors even hosted a drive-through kindergarten graduation so students could still celebrate their achievements.
When school reopened in the fall, enrollment was down by about a third. Because of the virus, open houses and information sessions designed to attract new students and market the academy were canceled. Spring Woods UMC soon faced a $36,000 deficit from operating the school.
The church was already struggling with its own financial challenges resulting from COVID-19 and had been taking measures to tighten its budget. An additional deficit from the school was simply not manageable.
In December, Arrington and church leaders realized the school would have to close in the winter. “We had made a decision,” Arrington said. “We could not afford to keep the doors of the school open for the spring semester.”
The hardest day
Arrington sat down to write a letter to parents and staff to make the announcement. In his career as a pastor, this was one of the most difficult tasks he ever faced.
“That was the hardest day,” he recalled. “You know you’re contributing to someone’s misfortune. It hurt; it really did. To our minds, there was no way out.”
Still, Arrington prayed and fasted, looking for a way to stay open and asking, “Lord, help us work through this.”
“God said, ‘No, it’s not time to close,’ and He sent someone,” Arrington said. “He doesn’t always work through you. God made things happen in ways that we never would have even imagined.”
The answer to Arrington’s prayers came from a courageous parent who he had never even met – Whitney Morgan. She moved to Houston when the pandemic was already underway, and finding the preschool felt like her own answer to a prayer.
Morgan had enrolled her two sons — 4-year old Cade and 5-year old Roen – when school had already started. She tried public school, but soon learned that online learning was not viable. “We did one day of it,” she said. “At the end of the day, I knew this wasn’t going to work.”
A sign, literally, brought Morgan to Spring Woods Christian Academy. She was driving by Spring Woods UMC and saw a banner for open enrollment.
An answer to prayer
“I was feeling run down and exhausted,” Morgan said. “I toured the school, and I immediately realized I had stumbled upon something really special. This was an answer to a prayer I was too tired to even make.”
When she received Pastor Arrington’s letter about its closing, she was shocked and felt called to do something to help. She took it upon herself to create a GoFundMe page, setting a goal of $100,000 for the school.
On the GoFundMe page, she explained that the school was devastated by COVID, “leaving some of the most loving, devoted and Christ-centered people I’ve ever met without jobs, families scrambling to find care and a couple dozen children to deal with transitions to new schools.”
Morgan also wrote that “the world has been very difficult on God’s littlest people lately. As resilient as children are, it breaks my heart to keep saying to my children what they can’t do or how things must change because of COVID and to know the challenges imposed on their little minds and hearts.”
Pastor Arrington believes that Morgan’s fundraiser was Heaven-sent. In a month, she raised about $7,000 and the campaign was shared nearly 250 times.
Private donors also came forward. In all, the school received $30,000.
“We did not have on our books any means of gaining that much money,” Arrington said. “We went back, reviewed our costs of the school and reconciled our budget.”
The school re-opens
The school cut more costs and found a way to reopen for the spring semester. Already, new students signed up in January. “Enrollment is up,” Arrington said.
He hopes as more families receive vaccines, they will seek out area preschools and feel comfortable returning to the classroom. “God brought the glory,” Arrington said. “The school is open.”
The experience strengthened Arrington’s faith. “In the midst of all of this, I’m seeing God still working miracles,” he said. “Five years from now, we can say that in our darkest time, people stepped up to help, some we know and some we don’t. People gave what they could, and it was truly a blessing.”
Keeping the school open next fall will remain a challenge. “We’re still in the midst of a storm, but at least the winds are dying down and the waves have subsided,” Arrington said.
Other church daycares and schools have also been forced to make difficult decisions in Houston, he explained. He has seen reduced hours, fewer days of operation and even boarded-up schools.
“What this pandemic has done to early childhood education, it’s just wreaked havoc,” Arrington said. “So many times, we think we’re the only ones going through something. At Spring Woods, we aren’t the only ones going through it. There are other churches with the same issues, the same problem. And it’s not just small churches. It’s hitting everyone.”
Rev. Jill Daniel, leader of the “We Love All God’s Children” initiative, has learned that about 60 percent of childcare facilities in Texas either did not reopen or will close. “We’re in an extreme crisis right now,” she said. “And the children who will suffer the most are the underserved.”
With We Love All God’s Children, Daniel is working to open early childhood education centers in churches throughout the conference. She is also building relationships with other organizations that serve children.
“We can’t stand alone,” she said. “The children in our community need us to work together. It’s a new season. ‘We’ve always done it this way’ is no longer the way forward. We have to find new ways.”
Daniel said that churches can take an active role in helping children fall in love with learning at an early age. “We have to do better, and we have to do it together as a community,” she said. “We have to take it up a notch, and we can’t do it by ourselves.”
Working together is a lesson Arrington learned while navigating the challenge of keeping the church’s school open.
The school is a part of the church
“Unless you have a child in that school, you might not even know that it was struggling,” he said. “Sometimes, we see the school and the church as two separate entities, but the school is a part of the church. Don’t think as a pastor you can fix it all. Talk to your board, talk to the school director, talk to the parents.”
Arrington’s motto, which he keeps framed on his wall, is “Everything is possible for those who believe.”
“Hold onto faith,” he said. “Always remember that until God says it’s finished, it’s not. Faith is the biggest part. I was able to see, when all of us come together, what God is able to do.”
To learn more about the school, visit springwoodsumc.org/swca-preschool/.