In April, months before the start of the 2014-2015 school year, parents in and around Somerville signed a contract to enroll their children in the Tufts Educational Day Care Center (TEDCC). The year-round, full-day preschool and kindergarten located on Holland Street — which costs $19,440 in tuition a year — has been operating since 1973.
Roughly seven weeks before the first day of school, Tufts University informed those parents that it was handing the day care over to the for-profit, national daycare chain Bright Horizons.
Executive Administrative Dean ad interim of the School of Arts and Sciences Scott Sahagian issued the announcement to the Tufts community in July.
“We are pleased to announce that as of September 1, 2014, Bright Horizons Family Solutions, one of the nation’s most widely respected child-care organizations, will assume management and operation of the Tufts Educational Day Care Center (TEDCC),” he said in the announcement.
“It was written in a tone that was different from all correspondence we have received from the Tufts Educational Day Care Center,” parent Emily Grandstaff-Rice said. “It was expressing how excited they were for this transition and that it was in our best interest. And when you use words like that to parents, they’re immediately skeptical.”
Despite the ongoing transition, the school year at Bright Horizons’ new Teele Square location, formerly known as TEDCC, officially started on Tuesday.
The TEDCC served children ranging from two years and nine months through six years of age, organizing them into four classrooms. Each class had three teachers with either bachelor’s or master’s degrees in early childhood education. Many of those teachers had taken or were taking classes at Tufts’ Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development.
While TEDCC is open to the public, there are many children of Tufts faculty and staff who attend. History Professor David Ekbladh, whose five-year-old daughter attended a day care in Cambridge before TEDCC, appreciated the center not just for its close proximity to his office but for its quality of care.
“The staff [at the daycare in Cambridge] was great and we liked having her there … [but] we brought her to TEDCC and we were just blown away,” he said. “It’s kind of like you think a B+ is a great grade until you get an A.”
In particular, Ekbladh commented on the way his daughter had been socialized at TEDCC, surrounded by a diverse population of students that included many residents of Somerville and its surrounding cities. A number of families were awarded scholarships and subsidies based on economic need.
“There was socioeconomic diversity, there was racial diversity, there was diversity in what kids needed,” Ekbladh said. “It was an inclusion school, so there were kids with special needs, and that socialized kids so well to the fact that not everybody’s like you, in a lot of senses of that word.”
Between her two children, Grandstaff-Rice’s family has experienced four different day care situations. With her oldest child as an alumnus of TEDCC and her four-year-old starting her second year, Grandstaff-Rice appreciated TEDCC for a certain philosophy that she didn’t find elsewhere.
“They look at the children holistically,” she said. “It is not a system that children go through. They take the time to understand what the child’s needs are, how they can best allow the child to flourish with their own skills and their own aptitude and motivation. I never felt like it was corporate babysitting.”
Apart from being a child care facility, TEDCC simultaneously served as a lab school for graduate and undergraduate students, as a site for faculty field research and as a volunteer or job opportunity for Tufts students who just enjoyed playing with children.
Special Friends, a subgroup of the Leonard Carmichael Society, was one of the programs unique to TEDCC. For over 25 years, undergraduate students at Tufts have been paired with children at TEDCC whom they visit and play with weekly, according to Special Friends campus coordinator Wayne Hosley.
“You really build this long-lasting relationship with the child. And it’s proven over the years to be very beneficial to the child because it helps them grow,” Hosley, a senior, said. “One of the big things that [TEDCC] is really big on is that social change, making that adjustment in the social area. So the Special Friends program has been … helping [the children] to communicate not only with children their age but with adults or children that are older.”
A loss of accreditation and Tufts benefits
The discussion about TEDCC’s new ownership had been ongoing for roughly three or four months before the announcement, and was partly driven by changes within the center itself, Sahagian said.
“I can tell you firsthand that the child care field has grown and changed significantly in recent years,” he told the Daily in an email. “It is now highly regulated and complex, and many colleges and universities across the country have reached the same decision that we reached.”
According to Sahagian, the day care’s loss of accreditation by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) this past year contributed to the university’s final decision that it was unable to manage the center by industry standards.
Self-described as a voluntary system, NAEYC accreditation requires fees to pursue and maintain, and criteria for the recognition were revised in April for the first time since 2006. So while the NAEYC accreditation may be an indication of high-quality childcare, the loss of recognition is not equivalent to a loss of license to operate.
According to NAEYC’s listings, Bright Horizons’ existing locations in Somerville and Cambridge are not accredited, though others in the city of Boston and around the country are. Across the country, there are a total of 6,885 programs that receive accreditation from NAEYC.
Sahagian nevertheless referenced the issue of accreditation, as well as citations by the state and the departure of some TEDCC faculty, as factors that brought the conversation to a head.
“My first concern was for the children of the center, and that’s my own personal position,” he said. “As a university, administratively, we weren’t in the best position to be operating a complex, highly regularized facility such as a child care center.”
After considering a variety of options, the decision came down to two national childcare organizations. According to a former TEDCC teacher, who asked to remain anonymous due to the complicated transition, the other chain considered was KinderCare.
“We determined that Bright Horizons was the most qualified to assume management of the center,” Sahagian said.
Amy Vandever, Bright Horizons’ division vice president, spoke to a match they saw between TEDCC and Bright Horizons.
“We have such a great respect for the rich history of the TEDCC and all that it encompassed,” she said. “So for us, it was an opportunity to bring what we thought were mutual commitments to a philosophy on early childhood, a commitment to excellence, even respect for the early educators and families and really what the program stands for.”
But on top of all that, she said, it is crucial to keep in mind that the children remain the priority.
“We always come into it really committed to maintaining what families love and value about the center,” Vandever said. “And that’s typically first and foremost the educators that care for these children.”
Thirteen full-time teachers, one full-time assistant teacher and three part-time graduate students work at the center. There were several positions open before the announcement had even been made, but of 10 teachers who were planning to return, eight chose to continue at the center under Bright Horizons management, according to Vandever. Offers were made with matching pay, though benefits for university employees differ from those for Bright Horizons employees. Teachers who decide to stay on will be losing their Tufts benefits.
Part of the opposition to the choice of Bright Horizons has related to the for-profit stature of the company. According to Vandever, Bright Horizons does not pay dividends, so shareholders or investors do not receive any of the profits. Like the majority of childcare centers, she said, Bright Horizons allocates 75 percent of resources to employee salaries and benefits, and the rest goes to facilities, administrative costs, and so on. The scale of the company allows a streamlining in overhead costs, which translates to a modest profit ―of about four cents on the dollar, according to Vandever.
Members of the community expressed anger and resentment toward the decision, and actively protested — from creating a “Save TEDCC” Facebook page to organizing a “play-in” to marching at Ballou Hall.
Teachers at TEDCC were first notified just a few hours before the parents. While all had been offered a position at Bright Horizons, there was some delay as they were making their decisions, Vandever said. During that time, some families chose early on to withdraw enrollment.
According to Vandever, out of an 83-family capacity at the facility, 70 families are currently enrolled.
Parents took issue with the timing of the announcement. Despite the option to withdraw enrollment for the school year, Grandstaff-Rice explained that parents must secure a spot in day care for their child months before the start of the year.
“To have this switch happen six weeks before the beginning of the school year … completely limits the possibilities for us to seek alternate care and made us feel like a commodity that could be easily transferred,” she said.
Ekbladh disagreed with the university’s reasoning that Tufts can no longer provide quality day care consistent with the industry’s best practices. First and foremost, if there were critical issues with the management of the center, parents should have been informed, he said. But even if they had, these problems should not have been fatal to the management of the organization.
“It’s an answer of convenience but not of accuracy, I think,” Ekbladh said. “Now there may have been some worries about budget or worries about liability that mattered more for the current administration for some reason, but to say we can’t do it — we have a nationally ranked early childhood education program, we’ve run these operations for decades — to say that we can’t manage them is spurious.”
“If there were real problems, it’s almost embarrassing that a university says that we have management problems in areas that we have research and teaching expertise,” he added. “But somehow we can’t solve them.”
Sahagian maintained that the educational facets of the university are distinct from operations of a day care facility and that the number one priority is a safe and secure environment for the children who attend it.
“I am confident that this change will preserve the qualities that make TEDCC special — including its distinctive culture, programming and extraordinary personnel — while also strengthening the center’s operations in critical ways,” he said. “This includes more extensive training and career development for staff and in-depth knowledge of evolving industry standards, regulations and best practices, which [are] beyond our core expertise as a university.”
According to Ekbladh, the sale of part of the university to a private company should have warranted input from faculty organizations and committees. The Arts, Sciences and Engineering Task Force on Faculty Work/Life had been informed late in the process and was sworn to secrecy, Ekbladh said.
“It made me so mad when they said they took everybody’s needs into account because this was done completely behind the scenes and completely [without] transparency at all,” the former TEDCC teacher, who wished to remain anonymous, said. “So we had no idea it was coming. I don’t know whose needs they took into account because it was clearly just administrative, [and] from their perspective.”
Following the announcement, there was uncertainty as to whether basic services provided at TEDCC would be provided at Bright Horizons — daily lunch in addition to snack, therapists for children with special needs and Special Friends, among others.
“What was irresponsible was how they communicated this to a community, which a subset is their own faculty and their own staff, and how they thought that simple details were inconsequential to actually think through before they went through with this,” Grandstaff-Rice said. “There’s the act and there’s the way the act was done.”
In an effort to ease bumps along the way, a transition advisory committee comprised of Bright Horizons staff, teachers, parents and university administrators like Sahagian was created to identify the traditions and cultures that were most important to TEDCC, according to Vandever.
On the university end, Sahagian asserted that Tufts would not be an “absentee landlord.”
“We’ve actually hired somebody to be the liaison for the programs [like] work study and Special Friends and to represent me when I’m not able to attend meetings and to work with the Work/Life Balance committee,” he said. “So we’re not just walking away from this.”
Despite initial fear of not being able to continue Special Friends, Hosley found both Bright Horizons and the university understanding and willing to guarantee the program’s survival.
“It was something that they talked about in meetings — that Special Friends would continue to exist, no matter what,” he said. “And they said they were willing to fund Special Friends in any way possible. What we needed to do to be active at the location, they would take care of that.”
According to Hosley, all employees and volunteers are required to be fingerprinted for background checks at Bright Horizons.
“It’s not in our budget, the Special Friends budget, and it’s not in the LCS budget, so who would pay for it?” he said. “We’re a volunteer organization, so we were so happy to hear that Tufts would pay for that, because we thought that was on their part.”
According to Vandever, Bright Horizons has honored all vouchers that existed prior to the transition and all of the scholarships that were in place. Tufts and Bright Horizons have been working to outline the future of the scholarship program so that it can continue “in full force,” she said.
Still, others are skeptical. While Vandever asserted that Bright Horizons is committed to maintaining the inclusion model that TEDCC boasted, the former teacher expressed reservations.
“I think the biggest [concern] is [that]their philosophy, from what I can tell, does not align with the TEDCC philosophy,” the former TEDCC teacher said. “It just seems that Bright Horizons didn’t really know what they were getting themselves into when they came with this intention of maintaining our sense, but they didn’t really know what our sense was. So I’m really concerned about what’s going to happen next and whether or not they’ll really remain true to that.”
Bright Horizons, however, insists that they are committed to keeping the culture of TEDCC alive under new management
“No two of our centers in the country are alike,” Vandever said. “We don’t believe in a cookie cutter approach. We believe that every center has the benefit of its own culture. And that culture is created by those that are in the center — the families, the children and the teachers. We were so excited about coming to the table with Tufts [because of] the history and culture that exists at the center.”