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College staff to reconsider closing beloved Gardens school

Palm Beach State College trustees directed President Ava Parker and her staff to reconsider the decision to shutter a school the college operates across from its Palm Beach Gardens campus.

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About 30 parents packed a board meeting Tuesday evening to urge the trustees to keep open the Center for Early Learning on RCA Boulevard next to a Palm Beach Gardens fire station. The center has about 80 preschool-aged children enrolled.

The parents received an urgent message from Parker on Wednesday, telling them the center will close for good June 15 because the college lost $1 million in state money. 

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"As a result, the college has had to prioritize the funding of academic and student-focused programs. This has led to the shutdown of programs that we are passionate about, including programs that provide valuable services to our communities," she wrote in the email to parents. 

Facing financial issues

Many of the parents who attended the board meeting had their young children in tow and wore white to show their support for the school. Some held signs with pictures of children playing and the words “Save our school. It is not just a school. It’s their community. This school is the change we wish to see in the world. Please help keep this community together!”

The college opened the center in January 2001 to serve its students and staff, but their children make up less than 20 percent of the enrollment, according to Parker's letter. 

Kathryn Rossmell, whose son attends the center,  said the school is under-utilized by college faculty and students because they don’t know it’s a benefit offered to them, she said. A branding company is offering a year of free marketing and social media services to get the word out, Rossmell said.

Parents are willing to pay $250 more per student per month in tuition to close the $200,000 budget shortfall, Rossmell said, and they’d like to start a scholarship for other parents who can’t afford an increase.

Corporations want to contribute, because their employees have children enrolled, she said. 

If they have more time, the parents can develop a sound business plan to cover the costs each year, she said.

“it’s a low-risk, high-reward proposition,” she said.

Trustees Chair Charles K. Cross Jr. said most of the board members are parents and have dealt with  child care needs. He said although the college is facing financial issues, he can ask Parker and her management team to reconsider.

Rossmell and Fred Hernandez, another parent who spoke in support of the center, said they were pleased the college’s leadership heard them.

“We’re very happy the college is taking us seriously. It’s definitely a very positive step,” Hernandez, of Jupiter, said.

The state cut $1 million for the college in the 2017-2018 year, but it also earned an additional $1.2 million for performance, according to a letter from Parker to the District Board of Trustees. That money has to be earned every year and is more difficult to keep than it is to attain, she wrote. 

‘Part of the community’

PBSC students studying early childhood education can complete observation hours at the center and nursing majors can do clinicals there. The school offers voluntary pre-kindergarten and accepts children who get financial assistance from the Palm Beach County Early Learning Coalition. 

The Shanghai Women’s Federation visits the school on a regular basis to learn how to improve child care and early learning in China.

The center used to accept infants, but it has since ended care for children younger than 1. Adam Rossmell was taking classes in landscaping design and human resources when his son, now about to turn 2, was the last infant to get in, he said. 

"It's an established part of the community," he said. "We're trying to do everything we can." 

Trauma nurse Karol Castellanos earned two associate degrees from the college and is about to graduate with her bachelor's degree in nursing, thanks to the help of the Center for Early Learning. She and her husband don't have any family in Florida, nor do they trust others to watch their children, ages 2, 6 and 10.

She was "scared and skeptical" as a new mom enrolling her first daughter in the center, but she felt at ease within days, she said. All three of her children have gone through the center, where her 2-year-old son is still a student. 

"This is NOT a daycare or a regular school. This is our family for the last 8 years!" she wrote to The Palm Beach Post. "The place that gave me the opportunity to go to school and reach my professional dreams while my kids were loved, protected, respected, appreciated and taught the values and morals that lack (in) this world." 

Many of the teachers have been at the center since it opened, and it has little to no turnover, according to the college and parents. 

The college told parents that they can take their children out of the school if they find an alternative before the closing. Waiting lists at other preschools with similar reputations are a year and a half or more, parents said. 

When Andres Dominguez found out the center is slated to close, he started updating a list of schools he made in 2013, when he and his wife first moved to the area. He came to the same conclusion. 

"The more research I do, the more I am convinced the Center for Early Learning is the best option for my daughters," he said. "They are simply the best." 

His 4-year-old daughter is very bright and struggled to build relationships with children her own age, he said. Her teachers worked hard with her to develop her social skills. 

"That is something that I don't think I would be able to find anywhere else," he said. 

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