Any parent would love to have his or her child attend preschool inside a place like this.

It's bright, clean, colorful and spacious. The walls are filled with displays painstakingly created by caring teachers, some of whom are volunteers. The director is a delightful person who loves her job and the kids.

That's the inside. The outside is a different story.

Gunshots have erupted at least four times in the immediate area since October, including a fatal shooting last month. Additional episodes of gunfire are said to have gone unreported.

Woodland Preschool sits in the middle of a four-block crime pocket in an otherwise decent area. The junction of Thurmont Road and North Hawkins Avenue in West Akron has long been known for drug activity and low-level crime, particularly on nearby Zahn Drive. But gunplay is something new.

Would you want your kids going to a preschool in a neighborhood where a man was shot to death in one incident ... another man was wounded in a second incident ... and an elderly woman's passing car was hit three times by someone shooting from the parking lot of the preschool itself at 2 o'clock in the afternoon?

Of course not. And that's why the school is closing after 55 years in business.

Woodland Preschool is in the same location it has always been, in a wing of Christ Woodland United Methodist Church. It has been a cherished part of the West Akron community for generations. In the final year, the parents included two dads and a mom who had gone there themselves.

At the start of the school year, 32 children from 21 families were enrolled. Parents yanked out eight students immediately after shootings took place on consecutive days in February.

When the remaining families were polled at the end of school, only six said they planned to return.

Director Sarah Restivo had no choice but to close, and it breaks her heart.

She tried to right the ship. Immediately after the February incidents, she called a parent meeting, then closed the school for a few days to regroup.

The city provided a police officer the first day back, and after that the parents chipped in and hired off-duty Akron officers for every school day. About eight of them rotated in and out. Restivo shows a visitor photos of smiling officers interacting with smiling kids.

By the end of the year, the parents had spent $7,000 on cops. Yes, $7,000 for security at a preschool.

“It's a testament to how committed they were to supporting the school,” Restivo says. “They wanted their kids to be here.”

But asking parents to foot the bill for off-duty police over the long haul was unworkable. Woodland Preschool was a low-budget operation, paying the church only $650 a month to rent five classrooms. Tuition averaged about $1,600 for the year.

Restivo arrived last fall, replacing Kathy Renzi, who retired after 25 years as director.

“It was a great fit,” Restivo says. “I have a master's in educational counseling [and worked in admissions and enrollment at Robert Morris University], but I had always loved being around little children.”

She never could have anticipated what would take place. One day in February, at 6 p.m., someone in a passing car shot at an apartment only three doors down from the school. No one was injured, but the shooter came back the next afternoon, walked right into the school's parking lot, past the playground, and opened fire on the same apartment.

“Two in the afternoon!” exclaims Restivo, noting how fortunate it was that the kids had already departed. “This is the part that kills me. [The shooters] are so bold. They're young kids with nothing to lose. They just don't care. It's giving them more street cred if they get caught.”

Closing down a school where so many good things have happened for so long is gut-wrenching.

While reflecting on that history, Restivo tears up. “I feel sick.”

We all should.

 

Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or bdyer@thebeaconjournal.com. He also is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/bob.dyer.31