AKRON, Ohio — A preschool has taught countless children in West Akron for more than a half-century. However, there will not be a 56th year of operation for Woodland Preschool after a wave of gun violence in the surrounding neighborhood, including a homicide in early May, brought an unceremonious end to the cherished institution.
Known for its creative, hands on approach to teaching new mothers and children under the age of five, Woodland Preschool and its collection of dedicated, seasoned teachers and volunteers survived year after year simply by word-of-mouth. The preschool rarely advertised, if ever.
“It was full every year just based on people saying, ‘you have to go to Woodland,” said Sarah Restivo, the preschool’s director.
Woodland has had less than a half-dozen directors in its 55 years of operation. That kind of continuity is extremely rare in the preschool and daycare industry. Many of the preschool’s alumni later enroll their own children at Woodland and it’s not uncommon for the parents of children that attended the small school to later become volunteers and teachers.
Susan Schellito is one of those cases.
“It’s been this little gem in the community for so long. So many children have passed through there… So many families,“ Schellito said. “I will always volunteer there. I will always be there, at least in my heart, forever.”
Woodland, which occupies a wing of Woodland United Methodist Church near the intersection of Thurmont Road and North Hawkins Avenue. In recent years, however, several pockets of the neighborhood have been marred by drug activity and gun violence.
In late February, the suspect or suspects in a drive-by shooting shot at an apartment less than a block away from the school. The shooting happened after school had let out for the day. The following day, the same suspect returned to the neighborhood and again opened fire on the apartment. The stray bullets punctured a woman’s car tire and back hatch. Four other apartments were riddled by gunfire.
This shooting happened at 2 p.m. It is believed the suspect was standing on the outskirts of the preschool’s property when the shots were fired.
“It is so shocking that it was during daylight hours. I think that’s the part that really scares you,” Restive said.
In the wake of the consecutive shootings, the parents of eight children enrolled at Woodland immediately withdrew their children, citing concerns about safety. Restivo convened a meeting with city leaders, Akron police and parents of the remaining 24 students. Akron police temporarily stationed a school resource officer at Woodland immediately after the shooting. In the following months, the parents of the remaining children enrolled at the school pitched in — on their own dime — to hire an off-duty police officer at the school.
The month the shootings occurred was also the time where Restivo and staff were trying to get children enrolled into the program for the following school year. Restivo polled parents, asking them if they would enroll if the school were to move to a new location. A majority of them said yes. The Akron Police Department’s Gun Violence Reduction Team (GVRT) saturated the neighborhood following the shooting, conducting surveillance and interviews. Patrols were also increased. In the past three years, the GVRT has confiscated more than 2300 firearms.
For the next two months following the back-to-back shootings, things were quiet.
Then, in early May and about a week before the school would dismiss for the summer, a man living just a few doors away from the school was fatally shot. While the fatal shooting happened after school had dismissed for the day, it still occurred around 6 p.m. — broad daylight.
“Enrollment for this coming school year we had 6 children confirmed that they would come back. That’s not enough to cover our expenses,” Restivo said, holding back tears. “It’s hard because I felt responsible. I’ve been there for one year but these teachers have been here for decades. This is their love. I know I couldn’t control that but I felt responsible that I couldn’t repopulate [the preschool] and I couldn’t keep it open for them. It’s just really hard to see that end.”
Schellito said the small number of people perpetuating the violent crime have ruined a community asset for the surrounding neighborhood.
“These people made the choice that they did,” Schellito said. “They ruined so much and they don’t even know it and they don’t care either.”
Even though Restive made the gut-wrenching decision to close the preschool, Rev. Stephanie Lee, the pastor of the church adjacent to the preschool, said the church will remain committed to operating a daycare or preschool. The neighborhood needs it, she said. Lee said the church may pursue Title 20 funding for the program, which would allow the preschool to accept clients who receive state or federal assistance.
“Did the person who did that drive by, did they know what they were causing? If they would shoot and hit innocent cars and people, they don’t care about the collateral damage,” Lee said. “Of course we care. My job as a pastor is to minister to these folks so they don’t get to that point. My thought is to have another preschool in the church. It needs to be in this neighborhood. Certainly someone that has the values of this church needs to be in the neighborhood.”