Parents persuade college to postpone closing beloved Gardens school

4:52 p.m Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017 Local
Parents of children who attend Palm Beach State College’s Early Learning Center stand to applaud remarks made during the school’s district board of trustees meeting Tuesday, November 14, 2017 on it’s Boca Raton campus. The parents attended the meeting to push the trustees to keep the Center open. Damon Higgins / The Palm Beach Post

Palm Beach State College has put on hold plans to shutter a preschool it operates for more than 80 children near its Palm Beach Gardens campus. The pause came in response to concerns raised by dozens of parents at a trustee meeting in Boca Raton on Tuesday.

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Earlier this month, college President Ava Parker notified parents that she intended to close the Center for Early Learning on RCA Boulevard at the end of the school year 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.

The center finished the last financial year with a $216,000 shortfall, said Richard Becker, the college’s vice president of administration and business services. In previous years, the deficit has been more than $277,000, he said.

The college has sought to save money by eliminating the infant room, raising tuition and cutting other costs, Becker said. Closing the budget gap will be a challenge, but the staff is willing to listen to what parents have to offer, he said

“This is something we’ve been thinking about for a long time. It was an administrative decision,” he said.

Facing financial issues

Many of the parents who fought rush-hour traffic to get to Boca Raton for the 5 p.m. meeting had their young children in tow. Some held signs that said, “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, and it serves two purposes: to care for the children of students and staff and to be a resource for students studying education and nursing.

But children of college staff or students make up less than 20 percent of the enrollment, according to Parker’s letter.

Kathryn Rossmell, whose son attends the center, said college faculty and students don’t use the school because they don’t know they can. A branding company has offered 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 a month in tuition to close the $200,000 budget shortfall, she said. They’d like to start a scholarship for other parents who couldn’t afford an increase. Corporations want to contribute, because their employees have children enrolled.

Given time, the parents could develop a business plan to cover the costs each year, she said.

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

The state cut $1 million for the college in the 2017-2018 year, but at the same time, the college earned $1.2 million for meeting performance criteria. There’s no guarantee that money will be available in the future.

“It’s unstable. I have no promise that we’ll have any of that next year,” Becker said.

Trustees Chair Charles K. Cross Jr. said most board members are parents and understand how difficult it is to find good childcare. He asked Parker and her management team to reconsider closing the center.

Parent Fred Hernandez, of Jupiter, said he’s happy the college is taking the parents seriously.

‘Part of the community’

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

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

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.

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 was 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 four-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.