Howard Community College has closed its Children’s Learning Center in Columbia, prompting an outcry from parents who called the program a popular and educationally valuable experience.
“Without warning, the HCC administration closed the center,” said Patrick Thronson, a Columbia resident whose two children were enrolled at the preschool. .
“[The closure came] apparently without any efforts to work collaboratively with students, staff, and the community to develop solutions to keep it open. It did not reach out to parents before doing so,” said Thronson. “I had an image of a bulldozer being driven through a garden.”
The center has been closed since March 13, but parents had expected it to reopen this fall. Parents received a letter July 31 saying that the center would remain closed.
“It was an unbelievably difficult decision to close the Children’s Learning Center,” Elizabeth S. Homan, spokesperson for Howard Community College, said Saturday. “While this decision was made only after much careful consideration, we know it was unexpected, and we regret the challenges that families and center staff now face.”
She also said the “unprecedented nature of the coronavirus pandemic” led the college “to critically examine” its operations and expenses.
“The college is facing budget challenges as a result of funding reductions, long-term financial impacts, and ongoing concerns about the health and safety of all students, faculty, and staff during a pandemic,” Homan said.
In her statement, Homan said the Children’s Learning Center, opened in 2000, was designed to serve Howard Community College students who needed child care while pursuing their education.
“Over the years, the use of the center by students steadily decreased, and as of the closing, only 20 of the 86 children in the center had parents who are Howard Community College students,” Homan said, adding that Howard Community College faculty and staff had seven children in the center. The remaining children were from families in the community, she said.
Homan said the college had been subsidizing the center’s operation by more than $350,000 a year even after tuition payments.
“In the midst of the current economic challenges, the college could not see a financially sustainable solution for the continued operation of the Children’s Learning Center,” she said.
The college’s financial aid services office will assist Howard Community College students who had children in the center and are “experiencing financial hardship,” Homan said.
Kerri Dinsmore, a Columbia resident, said, “I was shocked. My son was last in the center when it closed March 13 and I’d been in touch with the center’s staff. There was never any indication that it would close.”
Thronson, who had a boy and a girl at the center, said, “This has left parents of approximately 80 children with highly limited childcare options shortly before the school year is set to begin. Trying to find safe, quality childcare has become a full-time job for our family.“
He called the school’s actions an “egregious mistake.” He also said, “Columbia had prided itself as being racially and economically diverse. The center was all of these. It takes a long time to make something this beautiful.”
Thronson said he paid more than $2,800 a month for two children at the learning center.
“We would have paid more if it meant the school could stay open,” Thronson said.
Jody Grandier said the center “changed my life.” After overcoming addiction, she decided to get a college education but was pregnant. She enrolled her daughter at the center and graduated from Howard Community College, then completed her degree at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
“The center made the difference,” she said. “I had no education and a minimum wage job. I am now getting a master’s degree at Loyola. The daycare at the center made education and the future accessible to me.”
Andrew Brown, a Columbia parent who had children attending the center, said the learning center allowed Howard Community College education students the chance to work with young children.
“The students would get a hands-on experience but there would also be extra hands at the learning center because of their presence. Other centers did not have as much support,” said Brown.
The center’s location within the college appealed to parents.
“When we got the news of the closing, it was shocking and abrupt,” said Delia Santiago-Materese, the mother of two children who attended the center. “We moved here from California and we toured six or seven places. ... We immediately knew it was the right place. My kids just love being at the school.”
“It was a vibrant, beloved place with so much going on, being a part of the college,” Santiago-Materese said.