Daycare center Bright Horizons at Teele Square, formerly the Tufts Educational Day Care Center (TEDCC), has had lower enrollment and increased prices since the transition of its ownership and management from Tufts to Bright Horizons Family Solutions, a national corporate child-care provider. According to its website, Bright Horizons is the largest provider of employer-sponsored childcare in the country.
Tufts Executive Associate Dean of the School of Engineering Scott Sahagian, who has been in charge of overseeing the transition from TEDCC to Bright Horizons, said the decreased enrollment numbers are a predictable part of the process.
“The center is working hard to maintain the curriculum and staffing that was the norm, but enrollments are down as a result of natural transitions,” Sahagian told the Daily in an email. “They are slowly building up.”
Enrollment in the center has indeed decreased dramatically over the past year. According to a document circulated in a meeting with Tufts School Arts and Sciences Dean James Glaser last August, enrollment dropped from its full capacity of 82 under TEDCC to 68 total children immediately after the transition. Currently, Bright Horizons Teele Square enrolls only 54 children—28 slots under the center’s average capacity.
Tufts history professor Alisha Rankin, who is a member of the Transition Advisory Committee, blamed the low enrollment numbers on Tufts’ abrupt and ill-received transition announcement last summer.
“In terms of the transition, I think [Bright Horizons] has done a better job than Tufts,” she said. “I think [Bright Horizons] has done all they could…but I think the way Tufts negotiated this contract and then just announced it out of the blue with no warning really stacked the cards against the center.”
According to Jayne Bradley, the regional director for Bright Horizons whose supervision includes the Teele Square center, there is currently no waitlist at Bright Horizons Teele Square. Center Director Harriet Garskovas said the lack of a waitlist is odd for day care centers in gentrified areas like Somerville.
Rankin said the lack of a waitlist has produced a vicious cycle that can discourage new families from registering their children.
“There used to be a pretty big waiting list, and now they’re scrambling for kids,” Rankin said. “If people are used to having a hard time getting into daycares, they wonder what’s wrong with a place if they don’t have a big waitlist, so it’s sort of a self-fulfilling cycle that’s gonna take a little while to break.”
Garskovas agreed that the lack of a waitlist affects student enrollment.
“It’s the Cambridge/Somerville/Medford parent group mentality,” she said. “If you have a school with a waitlist, everyone wants to get in no matter how good the school is.”
She added, however, that she expected the center will have a waitlist soon.
“For parents, change is really hard and scary,” Garskovas said. “It was a big unknown I think because [Bright Horizons] came in and said, ‘We’re here,’ but nobody really knew what that meant. Trust has to be earned and built.”
Rankin explained that for-profit day care centers like Bright Horizons also struggle with a perception problem, which has contributed to low enrollment in the Teele Square location.
“This is a community that really believes in the non-profit model, and so it’s going to be a harder sell for a lot of people to put their child in a for-profit center, which, fairly or not, is viewed as a corporate behemoth,” she said. “I would prefer TEDCC, but I do think this center is being a little unfairly punished by the idea of corporate being bad.”
According to Rankin, if the center’s enrollment does not increase, the center will stop making a profit on the space and subsequently will shut down.
Tufts political science Professor Elizabeth Remick said that this would be a real problem for Tufts faculty with young children.
“It is so important to have some kind of childcare on campus,” she said. “My junior colleagues could not do their jobs without it. Employees at Tufts spend a lot of time thinking about childcare. It is important for employers to make this a priority because it allows people to focus on their jobs.”
Despite this, Tufts faculty members are pulling their children from the center. The total number of Tufts faculty and affiliate children enrolled in the center has dropped from 29 under TEDCC — or about 35 percent of total enrollment — to 16 immediately after the transition, or 24 percent of total enrollment, according to data collected in an “Open letter to the Tufts administration on the decision to cease operating the Tufts Educational Day Care Center,” written last September by the Work Life committee. For the 2015-2016 school year, there are 11 children of Tufts affiliates enrolled, which is around 20 percent of total enrollment at the center, according to a document circulated at a recent meeting with Dean James Glaser of the School of Arts and Sciences.
“I think key to increasing enrollment is getting Tufts families to go back [to the center],” Rankin said.
Remick, who helped author the open letter last fall, agreed.
“For the long-term health of the center, we need to encourage Tufts affiliates to enroll,” she said. “The center is a crucial resource for members of the Tufts community, and higher enrollments will make it sustainable.
According to Bradley, Bright Horizons is actively working to increase enrollment through community outreach and is looking to partner with Tufts in doing so.
“We’re open to year-round enrollment now … We’re also going to offer things like parent referral programs and new signage, because the signs that are outside the center are old and not entirely accurate,” she said. “We are also going to increase our communication with Tufts as a partner to try to enroll children in the program.”
However, according to Rankin, Tufts has been less committed to such engagement.
“Tufts is giving Bright Horizons only a very low level of support,” she said.
She also said that the university should consider its former role as the primary benefactor of the daycare center when defining its role in the future development of Bright Horizons Teele Square.
“I don’t think Tufts really took anything into consideration in terms of what the impact was going to be on faculty,” she said. “They just wanted it off their hands as quickly as possible, I think.”
In addition to decreased enrollment, prices at the daycare have also increased by 5 percent for returning families and 10 percent for new students, according to Tufts history professor David Ekbladh, who had a daughter in TEDCC last year. He said that if the prices of other Bright Horizons centers in the Boston area are any indicator, they will continue to rise for Bright Horizons Teele Square families.
“A corporation has an incentive,” he said. “It’s eventually going to trap faculty under this financial burden. I think [the Tufts] administration should have considered this.”
Tufts announced the ownership change for the Teele Square day care center in a press release last July, months after parents had already registered their children in April to enroll in the center for the following academic year. This led to “Save TEDCC” protests by parents in the community, including Tufts faculty members.
“Some of us were so agitated because it wasn’t just a change in curriculum,” Ekbladh said. “It really had a human cost.”
Sahagian explained at the time that the decision for the transition was made in order to maintain the standards of the center.
“As the child care field has grown and evolved, Tufts has found it increasingly difficult to ensure that we are managing the center in accordance with the most current regulations, industry standards and best practices, and in the most fiscally responsible way,” he wrote in a press release. “We have also been unable to respond to growing requests for infant and toddler care. We have concluded that the best solution to these changing needs was for Bright Horizons to assume operation of the center.”
Sahagian told the Daily last year that the day care’s loss of accreditation by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) also influenced the university’s decision.
“The decision to transition to Bright Horizons was made after thoughtful consideration of the needs of enrolled families, center staff and the university,” he wrote in the press release. “Providing the highest quality program possible while assuring the safety and well-being of our children has always been our most important priority.”
The transition process has been aided by the Transition Advisory Committee. It was formed to identify the traditions and cultures most important to TEDCC, which had been a part of Tufts since 1973 and was known as “Little Tufts.” The advisory committee is made up of Bright Horizons staff, teachers, parents and university administrators like Sahagian, according to a statement that Bright Horizons’ Division Vice President Amy Vandever gave to the Daily for a Sept. 4, 2014 article.
Sahagian explained that in addition to the advisory committee, there is a staff member on the Tufts Committee on Faculty Work/Life who is responsible for monitoring the center and ensuring that “parents receive a positive experience.”
“Through this arrangement, the Medford/Somerville campus will have a quality day care center located on-site with services provided by a nationally recognized organization whose sole focus is providing excellent child care,” he wrote in last year’s press release.
Rankin said that there had been concerns this past year about Bright Horizons’ ability to continue the same quality of special needs catering to students. She said that these concerns result from the daycare’s status as a for-profit center, which has proven a barrier in persuading Medford and Somerville townships to send specialists there, she said. Despite worries that the Special Friends program under the Leonard Carmichael Society would be discontinued after the transition from TEDCC, the program has continued to partner Tufts students with students at the day care.
However, Rankin said that the curriculum and culture of inclusion in place under TEDCC has remained relatively unchanged.
“It doesn’t seem like they’ve really meddled in the classroom at all; I think the curriculum has been allowed to stay how it was,” she said.
However, Rankin said that there are concerns over how long the level of consistency in the daycare’s curriculum and culture can be maintained before the corporate template begins to overtake it.
“I worry, as more teachers transition out and there’s no one left who knew TEDCC as it was, whether the high level that I think is still there for the time being can be sustained,” she said.
Bradley said that the curriculum in place will be maintained, as she believes it “fits right in with the Bright Horizons mission.”
“We are committed to maintaining consistency throughout the transition,” she said.
Garskovas said she is confident that trust for the center is being earned slowly but surely in the Somerville community.
“My job now is to bring the dialogue back to the children and the high quality day care we offer,” she said.