After dispute with church, school reopens The nursery school at Hopewell Methodist Church had been closed since the holidays. It has a new name and a new lease.

Posted: January 08, 2002

EAST BRANDYWINE TOWNSHIP — A dispute between a Methodist church and an affiliated nursery school that forced the extension of the school's winter vacation was resolved, at least temporarily, with the school reopening yesterday under a new name and with a new lease.

After 20 years at the Hopewell United Methodist Church in Guthriesville, the Hopewell School became the Brandywine School yesterday. Its new lease will run through May, the end of the school year, school officials said. After that, the church and school will split, a decision that follows a dispute over the school's staffing and the church's desire for the school to increase its religious curriculum.

With the school's pending departure, the church on Hopewell Road plans to open its own Christian nursery school next year, leaders said. Officials at the Brandywine School said they are scouring the Downingtown area for a place to hold classes for its 300 children in the fall.

Parents here, who saw the spat extend the winter break by three days last week, said that while they are glad to have a place to send their children again, they are worried about the school's long-term prospects for survival.

"We're happy school's back; I think my son was getting really sick of sitting around the house with Mom," said Michelle Limper, whose son goes to the Brandywine School.

Other parents said they are happy the school balked at the church's demands that the school make its curriculum more explicitly Christian.

"We chose this school because of the way it is right now. If it were more Christian, a lot of the parents wouldn't be interested," said Marco Droese, whose 4-year-old daughter attends the school and whose 6-year-old son is a graduate.

On Dec. 19, after a long-simmering feud over how much control the Hopewell United Methodist Church could exercise over the Hopewell School, the church told the school it either had to cede more decision-making power to the church or operate on its own. The school had leased space at the church since 1975.

Church officials said they wanted more control over the school's staffing decisions, curriculum, and budget.

"We thought, they're in our building, on our insurance, we'd like to have the oversight over this school [that] we are supposed to have," said Keith Ladd, president of the Hopewell United Methodist Church Council.

Church officials said they were upset by the increasingly secular tone the school's curriculum has been taking.

Specifically, Ladd said, the church wanted "religious psalms as well as secular songs; explanation of the religious side to secular holidays, such as Halloween; the teachers to feel free to explain their personal relationship with Jesus Christ to the students. And it would be nice if they invited the pastor into the classrooms once in a while."

But school officials objected and chose to cut all ties with the church. After scrambling to come up with a lease and insurance in time for the school's Jan. 2 reopening, administrators called parents on Jan. 1 to tell them there would be no classes the next day.

On Wednesday, some parents picketed the church, whose leadership relented by Sunday evening, giving the school a five-month lease extension.

"The church has a vision that's different from ours. They want to have a Christian school here. We're definitely looking for a new place," said Bonnie Klingelhoeffer, the director of Brandywine School.

"The church are the ones who are changing their attitude towards us. We haven't changed a thing," said Kathy Sweeney, a board member at the school and a 14-year teacher.

But some things changed yesterday. Although a big blue sign dangled outside the school building proclaiming it "The Hopewell School," inside the building, the receptionist answered the phone with a crisp, "Brandywine School, may I help you?"

Church and school officials say the spat has its roots in the explosive population growth over the last decade in north-central Chester County.

In the last 15 years, the church's congregation has grown from 250 member families to more than 600, and the church's budget has more than doubled. To appeal to an increasingly diverse community, the church has added a variety of worship services, ranging from traditional services to healing services - the laying on of hands - to contemporary services, which feature multimedia presentations. "PowerPoint, movies and music," Ladd said.

"Fifteen years ago, we were worried about more important things than the nursery school, like growing, and thinking about our finances. Now, we're in better shape, so we were able to look around and say, 'Are we really in control of the nursery school or aren't we?' " he said.

When the nursery school opened, the church appointed a majority of the members of the school's board. As time went on, and, Ladd says, the church paid less attention, that dwindled to three of nine members. The school also stopped submitting staff changes and budgets to the board for approval, Ladd said.

But the Downingtown region's growth has also translated to growth at the nursery school. When Bonnie Klingelhoeffer started working at the nursery school in 1986, the school had three classes and about 75 students, she said. Now, there are 18 classes and about 320 children.

"Early child care is really a priority for parents in this region, and we've grown through word of mouth because parents have been happy with our school. I think we'll be more than able to survive a move and a change of name," Klingelhoeffer said.

The church says it is moving on, too.

"We're moving ahead with plans to try to get our own school opened by next year," Ladd said. "It's exciting to put together a school on the sort of Christian principles. It's the sort of thing we wanted all along."

Benjamin Wallace-Wells' e-mail address is wallacb@phillynews.com.

|
|
|
|
|