A 4-year-old girl who attends the Afton Preschool told director Cindy Melzer to find some more kids so her younger brother could come there in a couple years.

Melzer has been trying, but to no avail.

A decade ago, the preschool that occupies a bright and cheery space on the lower level of Memorial Lutheran Church was bursting at the seams, with two classes of 20 students and several other children on the waiting list. But as Afton aged, the number of small children in town declined. Enrollment steadily dropped, and this year only 16 students showed up for classes that were scaled back to three days a week.

They will have the distinction of being the last children to pass through the Afton Preschool, which will close on Thursday after 44 years of teaching 3- and 4-year-olds the alphabet and how to count. The preschool also delivered lessons in cooperation and taught skills necessary to enter kindergarten.

"It's really sad; it's been here so long," said Erin Omann, of Afton, whose daughter, Sofia, has attended the preschool for the past two years. Her son, Elias, 8 months, won't get the chance. "They do a good job at engaging the kids and keeping families involved. This is a community. This will be a big loss," she said.

Melzer attributed the downturn in new housing starts as one reason for the lack of preschoolers. According to the website www.City-Data.com, only 18 single-family dwellings have been built in Afton since 2007. The average price ranged from $471,000 to $1.65 million -- way above what most young families with small children can afford, Melzer said.

At the same time, the city's median age rose to 48.2, making Afton one of the oldest cities in Washington County, and the average household shrunk to 2.7 persons.

For three hours on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings from Labor Day to Memorial Day, Melzer and head teacher Steph Hopper have presented lessons that focus on math and literacy skills. They also teach about the weather and give students an opportunity to talk about their lives at home. Kids have science lessons on Thursdays, which includes occasional field trips to places such as the Como Zoo in St. Paul and the Carpenter Nature Center in Hastings. The goal, Hopper said, was to have each child prepared for the kindergarten readiness benchmarks set by the Minnesota Department of Education.

"There really is a focus on academics, not really what you think of when sending a child to a day care," said Amanda Kaas of Hastings, whose daughter, Anna, is a student. "This is very sad, heartbreaking, because the teachers are awesome."

As parents -- some of whom attended Afton Preschool themselves -- lament the school's closing, children busily played house last week. They played with trucks and building blocks, eyed butterflies, learned how to make the number nine, and walked to the city park.

Andy Leiviska, of Lakeland, whose wife attended church at Memorial, said he appreciated the sense of community at the school and called its closing a "big bummer."

Melzer is planning a picnic for the last day on Thursday, but is not planning much fanfare.

A few alumni have said they want to stop by and get one last look at the preschool and the view overlooking the St. Croix River. After that, Melzer will pack up the books, toys, games and supplies and donate them to a nonprofit.

Melzer announced the closing about a month ago. The non-religious preschool, which is not affiliated with Memorial Lutheran but only rented space there, was not in financial trouble. One person even wanted to donate enough money to keep the school open for the 2012-13 school year, Melzer said. But she said the decision to close came down to numbers.

"We don't have enough kids," said Melzer, whose adult children once attended the preschool.

"Having 10 to 12 kids walk through the door is what we need. We need kids, and that is not going to happen."

Afton's closing leaves one preschool in the area, Rainbow Christian Preschool, at St. Croix Valley Church in nearby Lakeland.

While some students at Afton Preschool come from nearby cities such as Woodbury, Lake Elmo and Cottage Grove, most have lived in the Afton area. Melzer said she had no budget for advertising and as a result fewer people knew about the preschool over the years.

"It's sad that people didn't know about us," Hopper said. "This was not a drive up, pull the kids out of the car and not know who the parents are and wave goodbye. This was not a dump and go. This was a great place with a homey feel. It was a community, not just a school."

Tim Harlow • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @timstrib