Preschool expansion won’t cover demand | AspenTimes.com

Preschool expansion won’t cover demand

Laurie Soliday, back left, owner of Solara preschool in El Jebel, and teacher Adele Matthee play with students, from left, Justin Hubbell, Althea Brooke, Logan Pickrell and Jackson Todd. The preschool will soon move to a new, larger building. (Mark Fox/The Aspen TImes)

A midvalley preschool’s expansion into a state-of-the-art facility later this year will double the number of kids it can take – but still just dent the demand.Solara, which has operated for 2 1/2 years in a 1,700-square-foot modular home in El Jebel, will move to a 5,400-square-foot building near El Jebowl. Owner Laurie Soliday plans to open Sept. 5.Soliday credited the Crawford family, which owns a significant part of the El Jebel area, for turning the new preschool into a reality.She’s excited about boosting capacity from about 35 to 70 kids because she’s had to turn down so many parents over the years. Because of low turnover, Solara is as hard to get into as the exclusive Caribou Club in Aspen. It was frustrating “having people call and not even being able to put them on a waiting list,” Soliday said.

Word of mouth has already created phenomenal demand for her 35 or so additional openings. Soliday said 37 families attended a recent open house, and all 37 submitted pre-registration forms. Solara accepts 2-year-olds to kindergartners. If it accepted infants, the demand would be even greater, she said.”This was a huge leap of faith,” Soliday said, “but my enrollment numbers for the fall show it was the right decision.”Amanda Brooke is among the parents who consider themselves lucky to have a foot in the door at Solara. She is a nurse with a varying schedule and often long days. She said she tried several places but appreciated the flexibility of Solara as well as its attention to the kids and the building of relationships it encourages. “There’s a family here,” she said.Brooke has a daughter attending preschool at Solara, and a spot reserved for her infant son because Soliday doesn’t want to force families to split up children.While Solara’s existing modular home looks like nothing special from the outside, inside it’s a different story. It’s got a small kitchen that provides kids with breakfast and a hot lunch (lasagna with fresh vegetables and fruit on Wednesday). In a room for 2- and 3-year-olds, kids were squealing with delight while playing with a variety of geometric shapes on a light table. Educational toys, books and stuffed animals are spread throughout the colorfully decorated room.

Some of the older kids, the 4- and 5-year-olds, were overjoyed about the opportunity to walk over to Orchard Plaza with a teacher to fetch some crickets in the pet store to feed their pet frogs.A few hundred feet away from the existing preschool, a construction crew pounded away Wednesday to prepare the new facility. Soliday toured top-rate preschools on the East Coast earlier this year to get ideas for features in her new digs. It will have a full kitchen with dedicated lunchroom. No more sharing tables for lunch and art projects. There is a separate art room.There is an “exploratorium” that provides space for dancing, music classes and even basketball. There will be separate classrooms for each age group from 2 through 5, and each has a door to the yard for “outdoor classrooms.”But several small touches give the preschool special character. A hallway is angled so the youngest students will always be able to see their classroom doors. Strategically placed windows beside classroom doors will allow youngsters to peer inside while parents sign them in. This will either alleviate fears, build enthusiasm, or both, Soliday said.There is an environmental component to the building, as well. All rooms have skylights so light switches can stay off as much as possible. Hand sinks automatically turn on and off.

“We want to start showing kids how to be environmentally conscious,” Soliday said.The Crawfords donated so much land for the facility that an orchard and garden will be part of the yard. By state standards, there is enough indoor and outdoor space for about 200 kids, Soliday said, but capping the enrollment at 70 will ensure a top-quality experience.Soliday said her philosophy is rooted in the concept that early childhood experiences really form a person.”If kids aren’t with parents, the environment [at a preschool] better be spectacular,” she said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com