The Children’s Learning Center has always prided itself on its independence. Founded 36 years ago when few synagogues had their own preschool, the center, in Rockville’s Aspen Hill area, remains the sole Jewish preschool unaffiliated with a religious movement, according to Renee Popkin, its founder and director.
That independence has come at a price. Enrollment has been dropping for years and stands at 43 children between infancy and 4-years-old. On June 12, the school will close its doors for the last time.
“What’s changed is the number of schools available” for preschool families, she says, as she surveys a class of 4-year-olds playing in one of the school’s large rooms.
In 1978, Popkin was teaching at the Silver Spring Jewish Center’s preschool. With a $25,000 no-interest loan raised from friends and family, she opened the school in what became Frost Elementary School. Two years later the empty English Manor Elementary School became available, and Popkin moved her operations there.
She shared the two-story early-1960s building with the now-defunct Hebrew Day Institute.
Some of her staff, including assistant administrative director Dottie Harris, have been there since the beginning. The school has had more than 3,000 graduates, Harris says. Some of them, like actress Natalie Portman, have become well known.
In the 1980s, the center included an elementary school with a full curriculum. When Montgomery County Public Schools added full-day kindergarten in 2006, the elementary school lost its source of new students and closed.
“You can’t compete with free,” she shrugs.
At one point 280 children attended the Children’s Learning Center. “All the rooms were filled with nursery school kids,” she says, pointing down the quiet hallway.
All in all, “it’s been a very fulfilling and interesting experience,” Popkin says before considering what she’ll do after the school closes. “I’m going to learn to play mah-jongg.”