“It was horrible,” said Caroline Potter, a senior fashion design major at Mount Mary University. “He cried for an entire semester. It broke my heart every day. I couldn’t deal with it. He was crying and screaming, but he didn’t understand. He didn’t get it.”
This is an example of the emotional responses that parents got from their children when the child care center at Mount Mary University closed up for good on July 15, 2016. Potter’s 1-year-old son at the time, Franco, was devastated when his place of comfort and stability was taken away, and was put into a completely new environment in the fall of 2016.
Two years later, university administrators are now working on a new six-year strategic plan, and the possibility for the child care center to reopen is not as impossible as some may think. Since the current strategic plan will be complete at the end of this academic year. Dr. Karen Friedlen, vice president for academic and student affairs, stated she has received input about the strategic plan that includes conversations about the child care center.
“We’re going to see where that lands in the strategic plan, and that strategic plan will guide us into the future,” Friedlen said.
The Reasons for Closure
The closure of the child care center came as a real shock to parents such as Potter, who didn’t understand why what seemed like a successful child care center would be closing.
“In the letter, they told me that it didn’t have the funding,” Potter said. “Which didn’t necessarily make sense because the majority of the people who were working there were students.”
Potter was correct. According to Sarah Olejniczak, the dean for student affairs and overseer of the child care center operations, the majority of workers were, in fact, students, besides two professionally paid workers. However, what people from the outside couldn’t see was that even though the majority of workers were students, the profitability of the center just wasn’t there.
“There were many compounding factors that led to the decision to close the center,” Olejniczak said. “It was losing significant amounts of money.”
One factor that directed towards closure was the lack of children enrolled to help bring in profitability. According to Dr. Karen Friedlen, the child care center had “significant financial losses.”
“Something that also contributed to the decision is that the enrollment in the center was not high,” Friedlen said. “And I think there were really quite small numbers enrolled and not as many students as anybody would have expected.”
According to Mount Mary’s child care center records, at the time of closure there were only 14 children that were brought in by students, nine of those parents being full-time students. Although employees and alumnae were also able to bring their children to the child care center, their numbers were even lower, totaling to only five children utilizing the child care center.
However, Dr. Friedlen pointed out that students were always the top priority and concern when considering the child care center.
“I know that even when my kids were little and I was on the faculty, students always received priority,” Friedlen said.
Students not only received priority, but also received special treatment regarding their child care center needs. Potter couldn’t remember them ever turning her down when she wanted to bring her son, Franco, in to be watched.
once used by
bins from when the Child Care Center was open.
boards and announcements
pinned on them.
“They accommodated me,” Potter said. “They said ‘give me your schedule’ and that’s all I had to do.”
While many students like Potter loved and cherished this kind of environment, it was not a traditional type of environment that most child care centers are run by.
“Each semester, (my schedule) changes and daycares aren’t as accommodating because they have their own hours,” Potter said.
This kind of traditional platform is used not to benefit the parent, but to benefit the child care center because it guarantees a steady flow of income. Mount Mary’s child care center, however, accommodated student schedules.
“We didn’t want to require somebody to pay for a full day if they only needed to have their child there for five hours,” Friedlen said.
But the efforts to keep the child care center alive could not progress by running the child care center the way it was run. And, unfortunately, students were affected.
“It was really irritating,” Potter said. “It was upsetting because, one, I had to tour more daycares; two, I trusted this place.”
Students, and some employees, were affected by its closure, and both Friedlen and Olejniczak recognized that it would be a difficult transition.
“It’s sad when there’s someone who’s been caring for your kids, especially for a significant period of time,” Olejniczak said. “You know, they become an extension of your family.”
The Aftermath and Decision Makers
While understanding the difficult time that this transition imposed on students, Olejniczak did her very best to offer information and help.
“One of the things we provided to them was a listing of the center providers that were licensed by the state in a two mile radius from the university,” Olejniczak said. “We had also given them instructions about where you can go for child care offerings.”
And while parents like Potter remember receiving this information, she recalls the transition not being any easier even with the help the university provided. This time of transition had people wondering, not only why did the child care center close, but who was in charge of closing it.
According to Friedlen, it was a collaborative discussion that had been happening for years. It wasn’t a decision that just came out of nowhere, but rather multiple discussions, speaking/surveying students and then a decision that reflected what was found to be best for the students and their education.
“We thought about this for years and developed multiple proposals attempting to do something,” Friedlen said. “It’s hard for us to say we’re okay losing this money.”
When all was said and done, administration had to decide if running the child care center at a deficit was beneficial to students and the university. The decision was made for a permanent closure. And while emotions were high, students couldn’t help but wonder who the final decision maker on this issue was, and wondered if they would be affected by this closure just like they were.
“I think the president, really in collaboration with the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND), would be the final decision makers,” Friedlen said. “Dr. Schwalbach was the president at the time.”
And while neither Dr. Schwalbach nor any of the SSNDs had children enrolled in the child care center during its closure, they made the decision based off of what they felt stayed true to the university’s mission.
“We want to be able to put as much as we possibly can into the education of the students that go here,” Friedlen said.
The Diminishing of the Renovation Plans
While many can empathize with having a better education, many of us wonder what happened to the new plans of starting up a new child care center.
“We had been exploring moving the child care center elsewhere on campus and doing a full renovation to build a new center, which was referenced in the email that was sent out,” Olejniczak said.
Potter recalls the big plans of rebuilding. However, the opportunity to rebuild was shut down after the cost of rebuilding grew exponentially.
“In late April of 2016 we did a brief usage study with the campus to find out what people’s intentions were for child care,” Olejniczak said. “That survey didn’t show the full amount of need to sustain a new child care center.”
According to an email sent by former President Eileen Schwalbach on July 11, 2016, the cost of renovation would be over $600,000. A debt that large and few to no donors was not a financially and economically resilient plan, according to Friedlen.
The child care center is gone, and now all that remains are the two rooms with all the children’s toys, educational materials and furniture.
The Future Is In Your Hands
Students, even those such as Potter who are graduating, are rooting for the child care center to make a comeback. Essentially, there are two powerful ways that students’ voices can be heard. One route is to get involved with the strategic plan meetings that are currently happening.
“We want their (the students) voices in that process,” Friedlen said.
Sarah Olejniczak mentioned the benefit of going to talk with your student government representatives about the child care center.
“Student government is a fantastic vehicle for bringing that information forward,” Olejniczak said. “There are groups that are set up to be advocacy groups for our student population that have representation at the university to be able to share that perspective.”
Now is the time to get involved. The six-year strategic plan is happening this academic year and will be put into effect for the next academic year. If you want to get involved in the strategic plan conversation, contact your student government representatives to find out the steps for getting involved. Be optimistic. There is hope for the child care center.
“Part of what I want to say is, ‘stay tuned,’ because we’re in a process and we may see that popping up,” Friedlen said. “I have great hopes.”