Families can't seem to leave Windermere Union Church Preschool. As the program at Windermere Union Church celebrates 60 years of teaching and loving on children prior to elementary school, many families are celebrating their second generation of students to attend the school.
"I think one of the most important things that makes WUCP so special is that 85% of my staff members' children attended WUCP before they began working here," Director Kim Collins said. "They fell in love with the preschool, first as a parent and now as a teacher. We have a very low staff turnover. I’ve had teachers retire after serving for 30, 26 and 20 years of service. I currently have staff members with 20-plus years of service."
Collins signed on as director after her youngest daughter, Tiffany, spent one year there.
"It only took one year of having a child attend WUCP for me to see and experience what a special preschool it was," Collins said. "I became the director in September 2002."
Nearly 18 years later, she still is serving in that position.
"I’ve stayed for so long because WUCP is my family," she said. "The staff and the children and families I have been fortunate enough to serve for 18 years. I love seeing the accomplishments the preschool children have after leaving WUCP."
Collins has no plans to leave; she said her work at the preschool isn't done.
"We are able to serve even more children in our still-growing community and provide them with an important well-rounded education before entering kindergarten. We focus on the child as a whole and work on developing them physically, emotionally, spiritually and academically."
Sixta Lawrence's three sons, now in their 20s, attended WUCP. She has served as chair of the advisory board and is a past board member. She said she got involved in the preschool when her sons attended but she stayed with the school long after the boys left.
"It has such amazing history and such dedication to children," Lawrence said.
Three generations of Bonny Elder's family have called the preschool home. Her mother, Marilyn Potz, taught at WUCP from 1976 to 1978 when it was located in downtown Windermere. Elder attended those two years, too.
And Elder's own children, Eva, 11, and Jack, 9, have been students at the school, both at its former location and the current off Park-Ridge Gotha Road.
"(WUCP) is just such an amazing Christian-based school that's small and has amazing teachers with a mission to educate kids and get them ready for life, even at such a young age," Elder said. "They just work wonders with the kids. A very safe place. Christian environment, which is amazing. ... A lot of history."
WUCP was started in 1959 by the Young Matrons Class to fill a community need for kindergarten at a time when public school education began in first grade. This was when the church was located on Oakdale Street.
The last year on Oakdale was 2005, when the school had four classrooms, 96 students and 13 staff members.
Forty-seven years after the school started, it moved with the church from downtown Windermere to the current location on Park Ridge Gotha Road, where the school has its own, much larger, space: six classrooms for 133 students and 18 staff members. A program for 2-and-a-half-year-olds was added, followed by one for 2-year-olds.
Accreditation with the Florida Coalition of Christian Private Schools Association allowed the school to drop its Department of Children and Families licensing.
In 2008, another classroom addition allowed for an enrollment of 185 and a staff of 22.
In 2009, the preschool obtained National Early Childhood Program Accreditation, which allowed the school to add a VPK program. More classrooms and programs were added, and by this time, enrollment had risen even more.
By 2017, WUCP employed 24 staff members and taught 214 students. After-school and specialty programs were added, and five to six weeks of summer camps were offered.
Last year, the school broke ground on another new building, which will give WUCP a chance to expand even further, to 248 students and up to 30 staff members.
ABOVE, bottom row, Eve Whitmer, left, John Spears, Cindy Terry, Bill Hayes, Amy Whitmer; second row, Kathy Pickens, Karn Skjersaa, Bryon Fischer, Greg Wilson; third row, John Cooper, Maureen Loth, Ben Taylor; fourth row, Nancy Stowe, Bruce Alderman, Claudia Adkins; and top row, Lance Huber, Jim Winters, Kevin Ferm and Jay Lake.
Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.