Closure of Clayton Early Learning center in far northeast Denver exposes pain points in early childhood care

A staff member works with preschoolers at Educare Denver at Clayton Early Learning. (Chalkbeat)
A staff member works with preschoolers at Educare Denver at Clayton Early Learning. (Chalkbeat)
A staff member works with preschoolers at Educare Denver at Clayton Early Learning. (Chalkbeat)

By Ann Schimke and Marissa PageChalkbeat 

When the news broke last week that Clayton Early Learning planned to shutter its child care center in Denver’s Green Valley Ranch neighborhood, dozens of parents voiced anger and surprise as they scrambled to line up new child care arrangements.

Behind the scenes, local and national early childhood advocates also took note.

Suddenly, one of the most well-respected names in early childhood education was downsizing. After just four years, Clayton was leaving an underserved city neighborhood, ending service for middle class tuition-paying families and retreating from its aspiration to provide quality child care to a mixed-income population.

“That is not a decision that we wanted to have to come to,” said Clayton’s President and CEO Charlotte Brantley. “We don’t believe it’s the right way to go to segregate kids based on their race, income or anything else.”

The move, however, illustrates just how financially tenuous the child care business can be — even for the biggest players in the game.

“It is concerning for Clayton, being a really well-known, high-functioning provider, to not be able to make it work,” said Emily Bustos, executive director of Denver’s Early Childhood Council.

Clayton, whose flagship school in northeast Denver is part of the national Educare network of child care centers serving at-risk children, doesn’t look like a place with money worries. Stately buildings dot its 20-acre campus, which long ago housed a boys orphanage and school. The organization also owns the 155-acre Park Hill Golf Club, which brings in about $650,000 a year after expenses.

Still, Clayton leaders and industry experts say top-notch child care is extremely expensive — costing tens of thousands of dollars a year per child. And help from government coffers is lagging.

“It’s an example of how underfunded high-quality programs in early childhood are,” said Cheryl Caldwell, director of early childhood education for Denver Public Schools.

Said Brantley: “The industry runs on an absolute shoestring budget.”

While Clayton is closing its far northeast Denver location, many of the approximately 100 children served there will be allowed to transfer to Clayton’s flagship campus on Martin Luther King Boulevard because they qualify for federally funded Head Start or Early Head Start. By combining Head Start funds with Denver Preschool Program funds and state money available to low-income families, the school can cover the cost of those slots more easily.

Up to 43 children, half of them infants or toddlers, will lose their spots at Clayton after Aug.18. They include 25 tuition-paying children at the main campus, three tuition-paying children at the far northeast site and possibly up to 15 low-income children at both sites who currently get state child care subsidies. Some of 15 children may be eligible for Head Start, which would allow them to stay at Clayton.

The closure will hit families with infants and toddlers particularly hard because there’s a chronic shortage of quality care for children that age in Denver.

While displaced preschoolers will probably be able to find other arrangements, “The infants and toddlers … they have basically nowhere to go,” Brantley said.

Some tuition-paying parents expressed their frustration at Clayton officials for not having being more proactive in addressing the financial challenges.

“You are the caretaker for the families because we don’t work with the budget,” Nate Paul, who has a 17-month-old in care at the main campus, and is expecting a baby who is already on the Clayton waitlist, told school officials at a recent meeting. “We don’t know what the cost per head is. We don’t have our hand on the gears and levers. You do. Your job is to make Clayton sustainable.”

Ryan Walsh, a father of two children served at Clayton’s main campus, said, “We’re not just a bunch of noise-making, smear campaign kind of people. We actually advocate for early childhood education, and this situation doesn’t benefit the community as a whole when we’re talking about early childhood and education funding advocacy in general.”

Brantley said about 30 staff members at the far northeast location will be able to transfer to jobs at the main campus, though some may take on somewhat different roles.

After operating its flagship campus for decades, Clayton Early Learning opened its second location in a building called Z Place in the Green Valley Ranch neighborhood in early 2013.

The additional space allowed both sites to begin accepting tuition-paying families. They had access to the same raft of benefits that Clayton’s Head Start families and those eligible for state child care subsidies did— small class sizes, extensive special services and lots of parent support.

But tuition — currently about $1,000 a month for full-day preschool and about $1,200 a month for full-day infant/toddler care — never covered the true cost of all that was provided, Brantley said.

Clayton covers $200,000 to $300,000 each year to close the gap between what tuition covers and what the program actually costs, Brantley said.

School officials launched the new location knowing that, but they hoped that more public funding would be coming to the early childhood field. At the time, a campaign was underway for a statewide ballot initiative that would raise millions for education, including preschool and full-day kindergarten. Voters soundly rejected the measure in November 2013.

A preschooler builds a toy robot at Clayton Early Learning (Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat)
A preschooler builds a toy robot at Clayton Early Learning (Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat)

There were other setbacks. In 2014, Colorado lost its bid for a federal grant that would have paid for new state preschool slots. Clayton would have been a partner in the effort.

Brantley said the state legislature’s perennial reluctance to increase education funding, combined with uncertainties about what will happen to federal early childhood funding under the Trump administration’s budget, also factored into the discussion to close the far northeast location.

In the midst of the deliberations, Clayton leaders learned that two separate grants that help fund other parts of the organization’s work — weekly “play and learn” groups for kids and caregivers, and coaching for other child care providers — would not be renewed.

“It’s this multitude of things that crashed together all at once,” said Brantley. “This was an incredibly difficult and disappointing decision to have to come to.”

Although Clayton owns the Park Hill Golf Club land and is in the midst of deciding whether and how to redevelop it, Brantley said it wouldn’t solve the problem of the far northeast site. For one thing, it will remain a golf course at least through the end of 2018, meaning no additional revenue is expected any time soon. In addition, any revenue from it would also need to support other aspects of Clayton’s large operation, which includes research, training and coaching.

Brantley said the fate of the seven classrooms at Z Place became clear in the spring as school leaders were developing the budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. The board voted to close the far northeast site in June.

Some of Clayton’s tuition-paying parents argued that they would have been willing to pay more if only school leaders had asked. But Clayton officials say the gap was too large.

Mike Burke, vice president of the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, a national Educare partner, said that he understands the parents’ instinct, but that it probably wasn’t a realistic request.

“An organization of Clayton’s caliber would have made it work if they could,” he said.

Educare programs have very robust staffing models “where you’re paying for degreed professionals, you’re paying for one, two, three teachers in the classrooms, family support workers, nurses, mental health consultants, speech and language consultants,” Burke said.

“When you start piecing it all together, you can see these cost-per-child averages raising, raising, raising.”

Burke said only a few of the country’s 21 Educare schools, including those in Miami, Maine and suburban Chicago, have classrooms that include children from tuition-paying families. But in most cases, it’s small-scale integration — only about 10 children.

Research on mixed-income preschool classrooms shows that such diversity has a positive influence on language development and social and emotional skills of low-income children. But Burke said early childhood financing structures aren’t set up to encourage socioeconomic integration because they come with strict eligibility requirements, often based on family income.

Locally, Mile High Early Learning, which like Clayton focuses on serving low-income families through Head Start and Early Head Start, draws around 7 percent of its 500 children from tuition-paying families.

But Pamela Harris, the organization’s executive director, knows how hard the balancing act is. Leaders there recently increased monthly tuition from $1,400 to $1,700 after a year of discussions.

That said, there’s still an invisible subsidy at work, Harris said — the discount that comes from paying child care workers a relatively low wage. Some in the field make so little they qualify for government assistance.

Overall, Harris believes there’s been progress on the early childhood front — gradual growth in Colorado’s state-funded preschool program, a new focus on early education in the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, and local efforts to connect the birth to five age span to the K-12 education system.

Against that backdrop though, Clayton’s plan to close its far northeast site “exposes the pain points that are still in early childhood,” she said.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.