BY JULIA DUIN — Shalom School, a local after-school program well known for its focus on the arts, was suddenly closed down at the end of February.
The 16-year-old school, which was housed in the education wing of the First United Methodist Church on Queens Chapel Road at East-West Highway, had been operating for years without a license. School and church officials said they didn’t know one was required, nor had it been an issue when it opened in 1996.
Shalom, which operated from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays, had coexisted the whole time with a full-time, church-run daycare center of about 60 children, also in the education wing.
When a state inspector showed up in January for a periodic review of the daycare, she asked who the other children in the building were, said Donnalee Sanderson, the church secretary. When told they were part of another group, the inspector informed church officials that any children in a child-care program that runs five days a week without parental supervision requires a license.
However, the state does not license two child-care programs in the same building.
“We were shocked and quite surprised,” said Janice Miles, board secretary for Shalom. But by January, the program was facing other difficulties. Enrollment, said Miles, had fallen to 18 students, well below the 25 needed to keep Shalom viable.
“The board was already struggling with what to do to keep ourselves afloat,” she said. “We had spent the last several months discussing what we might do about it and what options we had to squeak through ‘til June. Then this happened. “
The Shalom program, which had a pick-up service for children from Hyattsville, Rosa Parks and Riverdale elementary schools – plus four children from University Park Elementary who arrived by a separate bus – was known for providing arts to children who got minimal instruction at school.
It started as a pilot program, offering three classes for ages 9 to 15 that met a few days a week. Over the years, it expanded to the point of offering up to five classes per day for students as young as kindergarten. Classes included African drumming, youth gospel choir, private music instruction (voice, piano, drums, steel pan, saxophone, clarinet, flute), ballet, tap, jazz, folk arts, painting, drawing, English instruction and various sports.
It was one of the more expensive local after-school options, costing $75 a week plus $5 for the van service.
The Rev. Joan Carter-Rimbach, pastor of First United Methodist, said there were 50 to 60 kids when Shalom began.
“When the public schools diminished the arts in the classroom, parents were looking for something else,” she said. “It was a great win-win for everyone. There was a need for it in the community, but we can’t provide that service anymore.”
Staff and board members met with officials from the Prince George’s County Office of Child Care in Landover, where they learned that regulations had changed since the school’s founding. The county gave the school a month to allow parents to find alternate child-care arrangements. Some switched to the Methodist daycare’s after-school program. Others signed up for a similar arts program at Joe’s Movement Emporium a few miles away in Mount Rainier.
Shalom’s last day was February 24. All five part-time staff were laid off. The school’s director, Susan Halperin, refused comment when reached April 4 at her home in northern Virginia.
“When it opened, the original founders told us, they checked with the state as to whether they needed a license and the answer was no,” Miles said. The news of Shalom’s demise was bittersweet, she said. Arts education is still desperately needed but with the bad economy and low enrollment, “it probably would have been the last year.”