The impending Aug. 4 closure of a Key West child care center and preschool has the parents of more than 50 children — infants to 4-year-olds — panicking.

Sunbeam Christian School, owned and operated for more than 20 years by Fifth Street Baptist Church, notified parents on July 28 that, “our program will close at the end of the business on Friday, Aug. 4 due to staffing issues.”

Those staffing issues, according to several parents, teachers and a former director, were prompted by the church’s pastor, Josh Dryer, who reportedly required the school’s teachers and director — who are of varying religious denominations — to sign a 22-page contract in which they would commit, among other things, to join the Fifth Street Southern Baptist congregation and donate 10% of their income to the church, a religious tenet known as tithing.

Parents initially were notified on July 24 that the church was “considering” closing the school and daycare. Four days later, on July 28, the parents learned the center would close less than a week later. 

“They gave the teachers an ultimatum: Join the church, tithe the 10% and sign a contract to teach the Southern Baptist curriculum, or be fired,” said Pamela Lopez, who formerly served as director of Sunbeam for four years and now operates The Learning Center preschool and daycare on Truman Avenue. “There’s 56 children currently enrolled, not counting the new ones who had signed up for the coming school year. I’ve had Sunbeam parents call me for placement of their children. But Sunbeam is the only facility left in Key West that takes infants due to the higher required staffing ratio for babies.”

The July 24 and July 28 letters to parents were not signed by Dryer, but rather ended with the email addresses for “” and “”

Emails to both addresses and voicemail messages left on the church’s main phone number were not returned all day Friday, July 28 despite social media pleas by affected parents and a petition that was circulated by parents, asking the church to reconsider the closure.

“No parent would place an infant in daycare if they didn’t need to work,” said Kimberly Sprague, who has no child care for her infant daughter as of Aug. 4. “I just came back to work after maternity leave and I can’t find a place for my daughter. I don’t understand why he would do this. There are so many kids there. And the homepage of the church’s website talks about ‘serving the community.’ I’m just shocked. A lot of parents and teachers signed a petition, but he still just decided to shut it down with almost no notice.”

Sprague added that she and her husband moved to Key West seven years ago and have made it their home, but they have no family in the area that can help with child care.

Another Sunbeam parent, Angelica (who didn’t want to include her last name because of her husband’s job in the community) is a sixth-generation Conch whose daughter loved her years at Sunbeam.

“The staff there is so loving,” she said. “The new pastor came from Jacksonville a few years ago and has been changing everything, including making the Sunbeam staff tithe. I think when parents and teachers started pulling back from the church’s requirements, the pastor decided to shut it down. But it’s got to be a revenue source for the church.” 

Families pay $200 to $320 per week for child care at Sunbeam for one or two children, according to Sprague.

“In his letter announcing the closure, the pastor said the decision had been made ‘with much prayer and consideration,’ but he definitely doesn’t seem to have Key West’s One Human Family attitude,” Angelica said.

Pastor Josh Dryer arrived at Fifth Street Baptist Church in 2018, according to a 2021 article on the Florida Southern Baptist Convention website that extols Dryer’s consulting experience that has helped other churches analyze their area’s demographics to better serve their communities and grow their congregations.

“For some churches, the consultations have led them to start childcare ministries for the young families in their communities and others have started Christian education programs to connect with those families,” the article states

The closure letter to Sunbeam parents ends by stating, “Laurie Dunn, the Monroe manager for the Early Learning Coalition offered assistance to help you find a new childcare program. You may reach her at and 786-397-3088.”

Neither Dryer nor the church’s personnel team responded to multiple emails or voice messages on Friday, July 28.

Mandy Miles
Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.