Taft Avenue Daycare Center, the only full-time child care center exclusively for the young children of University faculty, staff and graduate students, shut down last Friday after 22 years of service despite a parent-run petition against the closure that garnered over 1,700 signatures. Taft, which employed 12 staff members to care for about 20 infants and toddlers aged zero to three, cited facility issues and recently changed crib regulations as reasons for the decision to close the center. But the closing itself, which many members of the center have complained was mismanaged by the University, has sparked a larger discussion about child care options at Brown. Provost Mark Schlissel P’15 has appointed a 10-person committee to report on the issue before the end of the fall semester.
‘Not the right building’
When the building at 48 Taft Ave. was constructed in 1982, few imagined the temporary environmental research lab would remain standing after research concluded six years later. But when a nonprofit organization approached the University about creating a child care facility, the University offered the building with administrative and financial assistance on one condition.
“It was, ‘We’ll give you some space to do (child care) as long as you provide it primarily to Brown faculty, staff and graduate students,'” said Beppie Huidekoper, executive vice president for finance and administration. Taft began operating in 1990.
“But that was not the right building,” Huidekoper added, noting the building was never intended for long-term use. “We (had) to shut down that building at some point.”
Taft did not age well, plagued with numerous facilities issues from frequent leaks to peeling floors. The already-small building suffered from a lack of space – tables lining the walls and cribs stacked back-to-back to accommodate the few children who made it through the center’s highly competitive application cycle. Unexpected damages also derailed the center – two years ago, part of the roof peeled off during a snowstorm, closing Taft for a week. The Taft building has seen no significant renovations since the day care center began operating.
Brown has reviewed the status of the facility multiple times since Taft’s opening, and in 2007 it conducted an internal survey to examine the child care needs of faculty and staff. The results showed full-day child care, like the kind Taft provides, represented the most significant demand.
The report also indicated that faculty and graduate students had a larger need for full-time child care than staff because staff members already had local networks they could rely on for care, Huidekoper said. Some faculty and staff have also complained that increased stipends for graduate students, which could be used to defray child care costs, unfairly privilege one group.
“There are those who do not have children, and saying, ‘Oh, there are more resources going to people who choose to have children,'” Huidekoper said.
Following the 2008 survey, the University began seeking alternatives to Taft in an effort to transition away from the old building, forging new affiliations with organizations such as the center at YMCA Providence’s East Side branch, Huidekoper said. The move became necessary when new crib regulations from the Department of Children, Youth and Families were released last year, she added.
“Once we knew the regulations were changing, we’ve been trying to say, ‘Is there another space on campus that we could provide to the program?'” she said. “There just wasn’t anything.”
Huidekoper also pointed to the University’s limited finances, which prevent it from providing a full range of child care services.
The Herald faculty poll conducted last year found a 22 percent dissatisfaction rate among female faculty with the University’s child care options, with about 14 percent of male faculty polled expressing strong dissatisfaction. Fifty-nine percent of polled faculty indicated they had no opinion or were not familiar enough with child care options at Brown.
‘No one saw it coming’
Vice President for Human Resources Karen Davis sent an email to Taft parents in May announcing that the center would close Aug. 31. The reason she gave for the closure was the facility’s inability to comply with new crib regulations from the Department of Children, Youth and Families without an “expansion of the center or a reduction in the number of infants in the center,” according to the email.
But the closing was a surprise to both parents and staff, said Taft parent Beth Moloney, an academic assistant in the Department of Theater Arts and Performance Studies. Parents had just been asked by the center’s staff to raise $2,000 for new cribs to meet the new regulations.
“We were stunned,” she said. “No one saw it coming.”
At a parent meeting the day following the announcement, tensions ran high. Davis, who attended the meeting with an outside child care consultant, said the center was being closed, not only due to new regulations but also because of the risk posed by Taft’s poor condition. At the meeting, Davis discussed other childcare options, such as the YMCA center and the Bright Futures Early Learning Center at the Meeting Street School, where she said spots were being “secured” for Brown families.
“I was definitely outraged,” said Taft parent Trina Vithayathil GS. “Everything about that conversation communicated to me this person doesn’t understand what this community is about.”
Vithayathil added that administrators should have consulted parents instead of treating the closing like “a facilities issue.”
“This is a decision that should have engaged more people,” she said.
In response to the announcement, parents suggested starting a petition to stop the closing, and the idea “took off,” Moloney said.
Parents created Twitter and WordPress accounts to spread the word, quickly gaining traction with alums and current students during Commencement. Parents hand-delivered the petition – which called for a reversal of the decision to close Taft and for a renovation of the facility – to then-President Ruth Simmons, Schlissel, President Christina Paxson and other administrators, with more than 1,700 signatures at the end of the month. The petition included comments from prominent members of the Brown community, including some University trustees and major donors.
‘It’s not just a car or some utility’
Taft parents said the short notice for the closing exemplified the University’s disconnect with the realities of working parents.
“When people talk about child care options around here, you don’t have a lot of options, and you don’t have a lot of affordable options,” Moloney said. “People have to get on waiting lists while you’re pregnant – that’s the level of need there is.”
Though Davis highlighted other care options at the May 16 meeting, parents said they felt the solutions presen
ted were insufficient. At the meeting, Davis was unable to answer “basic questions” about the costs of care at centers like the YMCA, Vithayathil said.
Confusion about available spots followed the closing announcement. “Parents started contacting the Y right away … then it became apparent that the positions were actually preferentially being given to faculty and staff at the expense of grad students,” said Taft parent Heather Ford GS. Though more positions have opened up, many parents have opted to send their children to other day cares instead.
Cost has also been an issue for parents. Because Taft provided cheaper care, the University offered to cover the difference between Taft’s cost and that of any other child care center until August 2013 or until the enrolled child is three, whichever came first. But that was only a temporary solution for parents who will have to pay the higher fees at other day cares because their child care needs extend past August 2013. Parents have lobbied the University to extend the stipend with limited success.
Taft staff were also surprised by the short notice. Informed about the closing a day before parents were told, many staff members were stunned by the news.
“I was devastated. I said, ‘I have no questions to ask right now. I’ve been here so many years. This is my life,'” said Paula Moran, who had been the lead infant teacher.
Taft employees had always considered themselves Brown employees, Moran said. Though Taft only relies on the University for financial and administrative assistance, Taft was unique in the level of assistance it received from the University – unlike other affiliated centers like Brown/Fox Point, only Taft used the University’s payroll processing system.
Staff also expressed frustration that the University’s communication had been limited to discussions with the center’s director, Mary Castrignano.
“We’ve been here for a long time. It’s hurtful that they’re not at least trying to talk to us, solely,” Taft teacher Kristan Scofield said. Staff members said they also felt their conversations with Castrignano were limited, forcing them to glean information from parents.
But the most significant complaint parents and staff had with the University was its lack of concern for the value of child care at Brown.
“It’s not just a car or some utility that you need to get something done – it’s more than that,” Ford said. “You’re trusting them with your child’s life and to know that you have to search and search and search and search, and the University doesn’t support you in that – I almost tear up when I think about it.”
‘I don’t think there ever is a good time’
Davis acknowledged the uproar over the closing in an interview with The Herald in June, attributing it to the close connection between Taft parents and staff.
“They’re like family,” said Davis, whose two children have been enrolled in full-time child care. She stressed that administrators had made other solutions available and that most Taft families had found alternative child care centers for their children.
Davis said she was in discussions with Castrignano to help move Taft’s displaced employees to other organizations and “made a lot of resources available … in terms of resume writing, interviewing skills, looking for jobs at Brown and so on.”
The announcement was timed for mid-May to give parents time to search for alternative options over the summer, Davis said.
“Maybe we should have done it earlier,” Huidekoper said. “(But) we had just finally secured the other spaces, within about a month, so we really had spaces for them to transition to.”
Huidekoper also acknowledged the perceived lack of communication between parents and the administration, saying that not including parents in the decision to close the center was an attempt to be “benevolent.”
“There are those who said we should have involved the parents, and we were really just trying to take care of them,” Huidekoper said. “Maybe it wasn’t – either way, it’s where we are now.”
Simmons reportedly apologized in a June faculty meeting for how communication over the Taft closing was handled, though Huidekoper and Davis said they were unsure of what they could have changed to avoid the situation.
“We did our best to balance the timing and the communication,” Davis said. “(But) I can’t imagine what a good time it would be to tell people their day care center is closing – I don’t think there ever is a good time.”
A ‘timely’ discussion
Following the petition, Schlissel convened a 10-person committee – five men and five women drawn from faculty, staff, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows – to “(develop) a set of recommendations to the provost and president regarding child care at Brown,” according to a letter to Taft parents. The committee, which began meeting at the end of June, hopes to have a report delivered to both Schlissel and Paxson before the end of the fall semester.
Though both Davis and Huidekoper expressed enthusiasm for the committee’s work, they disagreed with the idea that the committee was formed primarily to respond to the Taft parents’ petition.
“I don’t think it’s the petition. I think it’s just the concern (for child care),” Huidekoper said of the committee’s formation, calling discussion of the topic “timely.”
“Literally hundreds of people signed the petition who don’t know where Taft Avenue is,” Davis added. “I just think it’s very easy to do electronic petitions these days.”
Davis also emphasized that though the committee sought to address Taft parents’ concerns, the committee’s scope is broader than that of the facility itself.
The committee’s purview is still being developed, said Elizabeth Doherty, senior associate dean of the faculty. The committee, which has met twice, has begun by investigating child care options at peer institutions, including the other Ivies, Stanford University, the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Doherty said.
Starting the discussion about child care has the potential to improve child care at Brown, said Scott Thacher, director of information technology in the Office of Campus Life and Student Services and a member of the child care committee.
“The challenge is always competing priorities,” he said. “For initiatives like this to pop up, something’s gone wrong.”
Thacher acknowledged Taft was a “catalyst for this moving forward” and examining larger solutions to address the University’s child care needs.
‘Keep people talking about it’
Most Taft families have now enrolled their children at other child care centers throughout Providence. Nine of Taft’s 16 children are starting at the Cozy Corner Child Care Center, a day care center near North Main Street that has also hired three of Taft’s teachers in an e
ffort to keep the community together.
Ford, a graduate student who will be completing her PhD in geological sciences at the end of the fall semester, said she chose the Cozy Corner to keep her son, David, with other children he knew. David will remain enrolled until she and her family move to New Haven in January for her postdoctoral position at Yale.
Ford expressed dismay at the loss of the Taft community.
“I feel so secure dropping him off every day, so I’m going to miss that,” she said. “I can trust the staff (at Taft) 100 percent.”
Ford is already beginning to plan child care options when her family moves up to Yale, though she is also looking at other options in the New Haven community. Looking at Yale’s child care choices inevitably sparks a comparison, Ford said.
“Within our department, we try to compare ourselves favorably to a lot of the larger Ivy League institutions in New England in addition to places like MIT because we are a physical sciences (department),” Ford said. “When I look at this, it looks like Brown is lagging behind.”
Ford acknowledged that some peer institutions were older than Brown and might have had more time to develop their child care options, but added that it was an incomplete explanation.
“If (those schools) went through the same thing, it had to have been more than a decade or so ago,” Ford said. “By closing their only child care center, (Brown) is moving backwards, so it looks like we’re 20 years behind at this point.”
Despite the closing, parents are still committed to keeping Taft in the conversation. Moloney, who sits on the child care committee, said she sees it as an opportunity to “keep people talking about it.”
“The time for serious upsetness has come and gone,” Moloney said, adding that parents were “resigned” and moving forward.
‘What can you do?’
Many parents, however, insisted on staying for Taft’s last day. On Aug. 31, nine children signed in for day care, and the sign-in sheet, sitting by the door, bore multiple well wishes from parents. “Goodbye! We’ll miss everyone!” read one. “Best wishes to all!” was another. And at the very bottom of the page, in large cursive and accompanied by stars: “Thank you, Taft!”
Inside, Moran was signing leftover cardboard picture books as parting gifts for the remaining children to take home, signed with hearts from “Miss Paula.” The furniture remained in its normal places and children still played cheerfully on the floor.
Neither parents nor staff know what is happening to the Taft facility, though technicians recently visited the building to check out the roof. Some staff speculate the building may be torn down for use as a parking lot for football games, though Davis said in an email no plans have been made for the building at the time of printing. Other staff are taking pieces of furniture with them, and Moran said the rest will be collected by other day care facilities in the area.
Staff are also uncertain about their own futures. Though three of Taft’s teachers have been hired to join the Cozy Corner staff, others are still looking for jobs.
“It’s been stressful,” Moran said of the job searching while signing books. “It’s been tough.” Moran, who is one of the three that has been hired at Cozy Corner, said all staff members were disappointed nonetheless by the closing.
“You can go on and on and on, what can you do? The place is closing now,” she said.
She closed the last book and capped her Sharpie with a sense of finality.
“That’s Brown for you,” she said.