Families scramble as highly regarded Clayton Early Learning closes center, limits program eligibility

The changes mean that about 30 tuition-paying families and a dozen families who rely on a state child care subsidy will need to find other options by Aug. 18.

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

By Marissa PageChalkbeat

Clayton Early Learning, which has gained national attention for providing quality early childhood education to low-income families, will close its center in far northeast Denver and limit enrollment at its flagship school to families who receive federal assistance through Head Start.

The changes mean that about 30 tuition-paying families and a dozen families who rely on a state child care subsidy will need to find other options by Aug. 18, officials said.

Clayton first began operations in Denver in the 1980s, and began receiving Head Start and Early Head Start federal funding to serve low-income communities the next decade. At the invitation of private investors, the nonprofit opened its second location on a campus with multiple schools in the far northeast Green Valley Ranch neighborhood at the start of 2013.

“We felt like it was going to be another very strategic location, and that we could make very visible what high-quality learning and care looks like for all children,” said Charlotte Brantley, the Clayton president and CEO.

Brantley said Clayton’s public and private funding did not cover the cost of its operations when the program first expanded to its second school, but hoped more public funds would become available over time to help the program succeed.

The funding gap did not close significantly, she said, and last week Clayton’s board of trustees voted to close the Green Valley Ranch center, and for tuition-paying families and families receiving state Child Care Assistance Program subsidies at both locations. Clayton will continue to operate for families enrolled in Head Start and Early Head Start at its original school, at 3751 Martin Luther King Boulevard in northeast Denver.

The changes will affect a handful of tuition-paying families and nearly a dozen families receiving the state subsidy at the Green Valley Ranch campus, and will affect 29 tuition-paying families at the flagship center.

Head Start and Early Head Start families at the Green Valley Ranch school will have the option to enroll at Clayton’s original school, or enroll in Clayton’s home-based program where instructors work with the child in their home a few times a month, Brantley said.

Amber D’Angelo Na, whose three-and-a-half year old son is enrolled at Clayton’s flagship campus and three-month-old is on the waitlist, said she was informed of the changes Wednesday by her child-family educator, who is a designated liaison between Clayton and its families. Na, a tuition-paying parent, said she was “completely blindsided” by the news.

“Of course we would have been open (to paying more) if they said, ‘We’re struggling and raising tuition,’” she said. “We would’ve expected that.”

Brantley said the board considered raising tuition, but said “very few parents … could afford the full cost” of Clayton’s comprehensive programming. Clayton, which offers care for infants starting at six weeks of age, provides extensive staff training, in-depth assistance for parents and has very low staff-child ratios.

Keith Valentine, also a tuition-paying parent of two children, said he heard “through the rumor mill” that his children would no longer have access to Clayton’s services. With six weeks’ notice, both Valentine and Na said it will be near-impossible to find comparable early childhood care.

“I’ve never, ever expected my two sons to get an ounce more than anybody else,” Valentine said. “I come from Clayton’s target community (and) my wife is a refugee from Ethiopia. Struggling is nothing new to us. All I’ve ever wanted was equal treatment and to have my kids be able to have the same access to the quality that Clayton provides.”

Brantley said Clayton was “upset” to part ways with the families, especially some whose children had been involved with Clayton for several years.

Down the line, Brantley said she hopes that the program will be able to reopen to families who rely on the state subsidies or pay tuition — if Clayton can seek the additional funds it needs to reestablish those spots.

“We very intentionally decided to have mixed income kids in our classrooms,” she said. “We firmly believe that we shouldn’t be segregating children based on incomes … so there’s a lot of this that we are not happy about, either. But it was becoming an untenable situation.”

Many of the 27 staff members at the Clayton center closing in far northeast will get a chance to move to the flagship center, Brantley said. She said Clayton has held off on filling 21 openings at that campus to give the affected staff members a chance to say they’d like to move there.

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