St. Simon Parish plans preschool program expansion

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Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
St. Simon Parish is looking to expand its preschool program and add a second building.

With a waiting list of families hoping to enroll in St. Simon Parish’s preschool, administrators are seeking to expand the program and add a second building to serve the additional students.

The school wants to double its preschool capacity from 27 to 54 students and is asking the city for approval to add a second modular building. The city also is reviewing plans to add a new multi-use classroom to the campus, to be used for STEM education.

The Los Altos Planning Commission reviewed the proposals at a March 5 meeting and voted to recommend the city council approve the changes.

St. Simon Catholic Parish sits at 1860 Grant Road, which lies at the intersection with Foothill Expressway. The parish’s school serves kindergarten through eighth-grade students and also has a preschool and prekindergarten program.

Director of admissions Theresa Clark said the preschool needs additional space and consistently has a waiting list, which has grown over time.

“The community has been asking for a while, and we finally have the funds to make that happen for our community,” Clark said. “There’s just a great demand for preschool right now.”

The new building would be 1,320 square feet, installed next to the existing 1,440-square-foot preschool building. Two fabric shade structures, 729 square feet each, would be added over existing outdoor play areas.

Although the preschool capacity would double, the enrollment limit of 580 students for the overall school would remain the same.

Currently there are two classes at all but one grade level from kindergarten through eighth grade. The preschool is smaller, and Michael Boennighausen, chairman of the parish’s facilities committee and a math teacher at the school, said increasing the size would allow it to better match the other grade levels.

A second building also means students can be separated by age group. The preschool and prekindergarten programs serve students as young as 2 1/2. According to Clark, the added space will allow for greater flexibility in how activities are organized.

The goal is for the new building to be completed in time for the start of the next school year in the fall, Boennighausen said. Using a modular building, meaning one that is prefabricated, allows faster installation.

At the Planning Commission meeting, Boennighausen told the commissioners that the long-term goal is to construct a permanent preschool building, but the modular structure enables the school to grow its enrollment and build financial strength.

“In a perfect world, we’d want to do traditional construction,” he said. “There are long-term plans to build a more traditional structure for a preschool elsewhere on the site, but we want to be able to justify to the community, the parish community and the school that it would be worth the investment.”

The planned 1,040-square-foot multipurpose classroom, on the other hand, would be traditional construction. If the city approves the plans, Boennighausen said the parish will put together a capital campaign to raise the approximately $1.6 million necessary for the project.

The school recently adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, which involve more hands-on, experiential lessons. Boennighausen said the school’s current facilities aren’t well equipped to handle this type of instruction.

“Our classrooms really aren’t set up to handle dirt and plants and water and stuff like that,” he said at the meeting. “This is really a room for kids to go crazy and have fun.”

The space also would be used by the school’s robotics program, which currently lacks sufficient space.

Commission support

The Planning Commission ultimately voted 5-0 to recommend the city council approve the projects, with Alexander Samek and Ronit Bodner absent.

The commissioners broadly supported the school’s plans, though there was discussion over a variance application, which would allow for smaller setbacks from the edge of the property. The plans involve a 26-foot setback for the new preschool building, where a 35-foot setback is required. One of the shade structures also would have a shorter setback.

Commissioner Do Ho Lee said he ran into problems with the setback request, because variances require a property to have “special circumstances” that deprive it of privileges other nearby properties with the same zoning classifications enjoy.

“I find it very difficult, personally, to think that this is the only solution available for you and therefore I don’t think I can support a variance,” Lee said.

However, the other four commissioners all said they could support the variance request. Commissioner Phoebe Bressack noted the triangular shape of the property and the fact that it is adjacent to two major streets (Foothill Expressway and Grant Road) meant she could support the variance.

Bressack also pointed out the value an expanded preschool would add to the community.

“My kids are much older now, but I remember struggling to find daycare as a working mom,” she said. “It was a really awful thing and it’s only gotten worse. Anything that increases the ability to have a good quality, safe place for our kids should be supported.”

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