The University of St. Thomas is closing its campus child-care center to make space for a new student wellness facility — a decision that comes after intense soul-searching at the University of Minnesota over the future of its Child Development Center.
A group of parents and others are rallying to ward off the slated June 2019 closure of the St. Thomas center, which they say comes amid a shortage of high-quality child-care options in the Twin Cities. They were emboldened by a recent decision at the U to spare its campus care center after parent outcry over its planned closure and to look for new ways to help U employees with child care.
“More and more, it’s hard for families to find good child care, and this seems like a regressive step to take,” said Christine Jensen, a parent at the St. Thomas center.
But St. Thomas officials say unlike the U’s center, their facility serves few students and faculty, and has a much more limited academic role. They say the planned Student Center for Well-Being will expand mental health and other key services next fall — a move that student leaders have cheered.
“This was an agonizing decision,” said Karen Lange, St. Thomas’ vice president for student affairs. But, she said, “I really feel strongly that this is the best decision for our students.”
In the Twin Cities and nationally, campus child-care centers draw lengthy waiting lists with the promise of a strong focus on early learning and less staff turnover. Institutions in Arizona, Missouri and elsewhere have taken a hard look at the facilities amid competing needs for space and resources. But some local private colleges said their centers are there to stay.
Jensen said the St. Thomas center, with an enrollment of about 70 children, was conceived as a resource for students who are also parents. But only two graduate students use it, as well as a dozen employees — roughly 1 percent of the university’s workforce.
Some psychology and social work majors at the university conduct observations at the center, and others hold work-study positions there. But Lange said with no early childhood education program on campus, the center does not play a major role in student learning.
In contrast, she said, the new Center for Well-Being will offer counseling, primary care and wellness services under one roof to the entire student body — at a time when students have actively advocated for more mental health services. Bisrat Bayou, the student body president, said the student government pushed for the new one-stop health facility, which he said will remove hurdles to seeking care.
“Having a centralized and very visible center will add to the idea of destigmatizing mental health care on campus,” he said.
Officials said they are offering the last month of child care at the center for free and are subsidizing care at two child-care center networks for a year. Staff will receive severance and help with lining up new jobs. St. Thomas will also offer a 10 percent discount at New Horizon Academy locations for all employees.
“We are putting the needs of our students and their mental health as a top priority and shifting our child care focus to one providing better access to more employees,” University of St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan said in a letter to the campus community.
But the center’s parents said amid often lackluster child-care options in the metro, the center was a model for quality care. Parents, who are planning a campus protest this weekend to coincide with homecoming festivities, raved about the highly trained, veteran staff and the close-knit parent community.
Jensen, who has one child in the center, said an older daughter with special needs who recently graduated from it made unexpected strides in independence with help from the center’s teachers.
“The main reason why there is such an uproar from the parents is that the center feels like a family,” said Aaron Sackett, a professor of marketing and a parent there.
Sackett said while a small number of employees use the center at any one time, many more benefit from it over the years. He voiced skepticism that the university cannot find space for both the center and the new student wellness facility on campus.
Some St. Thomas graduates are backing the parents, saying they gained valuable experience at the center. Margaret Skogmo was a student worker and later a preschool teacher there before graduating in 2014.
“I fell in love with the place,” said Skogmo, who now leads a child-care center in Lowry, Minn. “I knew I wanted to pursue this as a career right away.”
The University of Minnesota announced earlier this year it would close its child-care center next summer, to free up space for its childhood development research program. With an enrollment of 140, that center serves primarily employees and graduate students.
But after vocal pushback from families, the university formed a committee, which recommended merging the two programs in the same building and working with external partners to expand access to child care for employees and students. The administration backed both suggestions.
“It was a lot of turmoil for people, but we came up with a better plan,” said U Provost Karen Hanson.
The U committee surveyed peer institutions, finding that many host multiple child-care facilities on campus. Long waiting lists and efforts to also accommodate families without ties to the universities are common.
In the metro, Concordia University and St. Catherine University also have in-house child-care facilities. Officials on both campuses said they are committed to maintaining them, both as a service to employees and as a place where students can work and learn. Concordia’s Hand in Hand Child Care Center supports students in the university’s early childhood licensure programs.
At St. Thomas, parents launched a website and petition, which they say has garnered more than 600 signatures in support of saving the program. Parents and staff have started talking about recreating the facility off campus if the school stands by the closure plan.
“This center is a jewel,” said parent Doug Czaplicki. “Just being told to go away is a shortsighted missed opportunity.”