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Carlow's decision to close part of a respected daycare center has parents crying foul

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A group of parents who send their kids to a Carlow University daycare center feel like they've had the naptime rugs pulled out from under them.

"My plan when I chose a daycare was that I would have continual daycare, but now that's been taken away," says Tricia Sorg, a Bloomfield attorney with a 2-year-old in Carlow's Early Learning Center.

The decision doesn't just represent an inconvenience, some parents say: It's a betrayal of the predominantly female university's mission.

"I don't see how they can call themselves a women's center when they're taking away such a valuable part of a woman's ability to work," says Sarah Ricketts, a Pittsburgh Public Schools teacher with a daughter in the ELC and a son who attended from age 1 through pre-kindergarten.

The ELC is a pre-school daycare that currently has five developmental groups ranging in age from six weeks to 5 years old. Carlow is closing the two oldest groups in the ELC -- the pre-school 3 (ages 3-4) and pre-kindergarten (ages 4-5) classrooms -- which account for 23 children. The three younger classrooms will be unaffected.

The school notified parents of the ELC's closing in a March 6 letter.

"After careful consideration, it was determined that more dormitory space is needed for the 2008-2009 school year," the letter reads. "The University has decided to close [the classrooms] and convert the section of the floor back into dorm space."

"We are quite strapped for space," says Carlow spokesperson Louise Cavanaugh Sciannameo. The school estimates that closing the center will provide housing for an extra 22 students; it currently has 350 students living in campus residences, she says. "For us, [10 to 12 rooms] is a big deal."

ELC director Melissa Hankin has not responded to phone messages.

The university's letter to the families stated that the classes for the oldest children will end on May 2, 2008. After that, the school says it will provide an adequate alternative to the ELC. The March 6 letter -- which was co-signed by Hankin and Dr. Anne-Marie Balzano, executive director of Carlow's Campus School and Children's Programs -- pointed out that the Campus School and the ELC both have pre-kindergarten classrooms.

"We understand that this decision will impact several of our families and would like to offer the following option to help ensure a smooth transition," the letter stated.

"The Early Learning Center classes in question are actually being consolidated with programs in our Campus School," Sciannameo says. The Campus School is a Catholic day school (also located on campus) for pre-kindergarten through eighth-graders, with a Montessori preschool program included. "The ELC will continue to be part of an entire program that provides a nurturing program for children. It will still be possible for children to have continuity."

"Although [the pre-kindergarten programs of the Campus School and the ELC] were not exactly the same in format or in schedule, we recognized that excellent alternative educational pre-kindergarten were available at Carlow for this age group," adds Carlow President Mary Hines in a letter addressed to the Carlow community, dated March 31.

To some parents, including Jay Alman, the school's offer is, "for lack of better terms, bullshit."

Alman says the Campus School is no substitute for the daycare program they are losing. For starters, the ELC is a full-year program that is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., while the Campus School runs for nine months, with shorter hours -- making it less convenient for parents to pick up kids during the school year and problematic to find care during the summer.

"You have a three-month lapse of care," Sorg says.

For this summer, Carlow is promising a "transition room taught by current Early Learning Center teachers," with hours similar to the ELC's. But beyond that students must be accepted into the Campus School.

"We actually got the denial letter [from the Campus School] a day before or a day after [the ELC closing] letter," says Alman, whose son is aging out of the ELC. "The letters coincided with one another. My wife and I just looked at each other and laughed. What else can you do at that point?"

Hines' letter states, "Of the 23 children affected by this decision for the current year, 12 have enrolled in the Campus School program and will be served in a summer transition program by teachers they know.

"We can accommodate the other 11 through August when the Campus School re-opens, if their parents choose to work with us on their transition program."

But Alman and the other parents also say that the financial picture is much grimmer at the Campus School. For starters, basic tuition for five days of pre-kindergarten at the Campus School costs about $8,000 for each nine-month year (almost $900 per month). Whereas five-day tuition for the preschool classes being cut at the ELC is $760 per month.

Additionally, "they claim to have financial aid [at the Campus School]," Sorg says, but it's not the same level of assistance. "These women [who can't afford the Campus School] are left to fend for themselves."

Sciannameo says "we have a generous amount" of financial aid available, though she declined to cite a specific amount.

Both sides of the debate claim to have silent support from the other side of the aisle. Parents opposed to the ELC closing have started an online petition (http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/Save-Carlow-ELC-Preschool) which calls on Carlow to reconsider its decision to close the two components of the ELC. So far, the petition has received more than 250 signatures -- though a number are anonymous and some are from as far away as Malaysia.

In her letter, Hines acknowledges that the school's move has provoked some controversy. But, she adds, "not all affected parents agree with the aggressive strategy being used by some parents to get the University to reverse its decision."

The parents say that faculty members have supported them in private, but are not speaking publicly for fear of retribution from the administration.

"It's not the faculty who have any say in this," Ricketts says. "It's definitely coming from above."

Whoever's responsible, the parents argue that the move strikes a blow to the integrity and stated mission of Carlow, which was originally founded as a women's college.

"I have two daughters. I want to raise them as strong, independent women," says Sorg. "I expected my baby to continue like my older daughter, [who is 11, and attended the ELC from 2 to 5.] Now that option isn't there."

Sarah Ricketts and her daughter, Carmella, will be affected when Carlow University closes part of the Early Learning Center. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Sarah Ricketts and her daughter, Carmella, will be affected when Carlow University closes part of the Early Learning Center.

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