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Tiny Trees, popular outdoor preschool in Seattle, shuts all locations: Mismanagement alleged

caption: Nature was the classroom for Tiny Trees Preschool students at Be'er Sheva Park in Seattle's Rainier Beach neighborhood.
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Nature was the classroom for Tiny Trees Preschool students at Be'er Sheva Park in Seattle's Rainier Beach neighborhood.
Ann Dornfeld/KUOW Photo

Tiny Trees, a popular chain of eight outdoor preschools based in Seattle-area parks, shocked parents and staff on Sunday with the news that it will close its schools on Friday due to a fiscal crisis brought on by low enrollment.

Tiny Trees Preschool has been an international model of success in the outdoor education movement, including its dedication to making tuition affordable to families through partnerships with public parks and government subsidies for lower-income families.

After its start in 2014, it expanded rapidly, and at one time numbered a dozen locations. It currently serves about 130 children at Seattle, Burien and Kirkland parks, including Camp Long, Carkeek, and Jefferson.

Families and staff knew that Tiny Trees was struggling financially, but the news that it was closing all locations in five days left them “in complete and utter shock,” said Jessica Hoffman, whose 5-year-old child attended the Be’er Sheva Park location in Rainier Beach through Seattle’s public preschool program.

“It's the only outdoor preschool program in the city that had a partnership with the Seattle Preschool Program, which gave families like ours the opportunity to attend an outdoor play based school for free or discounted tuition,” Hoffman said.

Twenty-six families at five Tiny Trees locations received tuition subsidies from the city, said Kamaria Hightower, spokesperson for Seattle's Department of Education and Early Learning. Others received state subsidies or financial aid directly from the school.

Although the preschool had closed two locations and laid off several teachers in February, citing low enrollment, the extent of the issues were not laid bare until an all-school Zoom call this week, staff and parents said.

Despite its partnership with Tiny Trees, the City of Seattle “was not notified that Tiny Trees was in dire straits and that closure was imminent,” Hightower said. She said her department is trying to determine what led to the abrupt closure.

“Our goal is to preempt instances like this by supporting organizational health with technical assistance including infrastructure planning, organizational capacity building and other supports,” Hightower said.

Khavin Debbs, Tiny Trees executive director, resigned in February after taking over from Kellie Morrill last September. Debbs did not respond to interview requests. Although the preschool website lists 17 people on the board of directors, many have since left their positions, and just two remain. Neither agreed to speak on the record.

Financial documents shared with KUOW, including a December 31, 2022, slide deck from Tiny Trees leadership explaining the gravity of the deficit, show that the preschool was under-enrolled by one-third.

At Seahurst Park in Burien, which had capacity for 16 students in the morning program, just two students were enrolled. In February, that location and another at Camp Long were merged with other nearby locations.

Parents and staff said they’d hoped that was all it would take to balance the organization’s books. They lamented that they were not made aware of how serious the financial position was until it was too late.

“They never came to parents to ask us to fundraise, ask us to look for donors, to ask us to recruit other kids — nothing,” said parent Katie Budd, whose child attended the Olympic Sculpture Park location. “We had literally no idea that there was anything wrong until just a few weeks ago.”

The school leaders made no apparent effort to recruit students to fix the under-enrollment problem, Budd said. Even though the problem was evident in the fall, the board was passive on the financial problems all school year, Budd said after reviewing board meeting minutes this week.

Giselle Fuerte, whose twins attended the Camp Long location, said leaving an Afro-Latin single mother like her in the lurch without child care flies in the face of the organization’s equity mission.

“I go to your website, all your literature, all your talk, how you're so inclusive, and anti-bias, and you care about the community, and you want to make Tiny Trees accessible to people at all income levels, and then you make no attempt to show that in your action,” Fuerte said.

“To give five days’ notice — that in itself was just so telling about how little they really understand the people that they serve,” Fuerte said, including parents like her who rely on the preschool while they work, and the staff who received no warning that they would be out of a job by the end of the week.

Amid the pain and frustration, some parents are trying to rebuild Tiny Trees and take over the nonprofit.

Maureen Cambridge, whose child attended the Carkeek Park location, said a small group of parents is working together to find funding to keep the school going for the rest of the school year, “and help to re-form a board and rebuild the program to ensure its longevity.”

In the meantime, the Seattle Preschool Program staff are working to find new spots within the program for families receiving subsidies — albeit at preschools with walls.

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