After three years of financial losses and a rapid decline in enrollment at the Olympic College’s Sophia Bremer Early Learning Academy, staff and parents of children enrolled at the center were told in June that the college was considering outsourcing its operation.
The prospect of a third taking over the center worries the parents of the registrants, who fell to only 29 children during the 2021-2022 school year.
Anna Smallbeck was one such parent.
“It’s a big deal to me that the focus on privatizing outsourcing isn’t about the learning aspect. It’s just about the childcare aspect,” said Smallback, whose the daughter, Juniper, started at the center last year. . Her husband, Samuel, is a student at the school.
After weeks in limbo over the future of on-campus child care as college leaders grapple with dwindling funding and how to recruit more child care staff amid a shortage nationally, parents finally heard from OC earlier this month that care would not be contracted out to a third party.
To that end, OC officials have announced plans to hire a new permanent headmaster – a position that has been vacant for months – and additional teachers.
The decision to keep SBELA under OC’s management came after years of financial losses and declining enrollment at the center. According to Olympic College data, SBELA served 126 children during the 2018-2019 school year. After two years of sailing school during the COVID-19 pandemic, SBELA only served 29 children in the 2021-2022 school year.
At the end of May, the school published an impact assessment which identified the use of a third-party operator as an option to maintain the financial solvency of SBELA. The prospect of Olympic College outsourcing the center, or part of it, to a third party has raised concerns about the quality of education at SBELA for parents like Smallback.
Contracting with a third party was also a big unknown for Deborah Kong, the program coordinator at SBELA. Leaving operations to a third-party vendor, as OC did with its bookstore, presented an uncertain future for teachers who spend years with SBELA students. It was unclear whether the teachers there would now remain under new ownership, she said.
“The unknown is terrifying for the teachers who work in this building because they have a relationship with these children,” Kong said.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, SBELA closed its doors while classes were online. The center lost children, teaching positions and a permanent director during this period. Those positions remained vacant, and Kong had not heard of hiring plans until the July 7 notice of meeting.
Kong said she and the teachers reacted to the school’s decision with relief.
“It’s not a band-aid, they’re addressing the problem,” he said. “It’s a real future and it makes me happy.”
The school has identified internal funding from the college’s instructional office as well as additional grants (including a stabilization grant from the Washington State Department of Children, Youth, and Families) to keep the center running. at the Olympic College, according to OC spokesman Shawn Devine.
After leaving the July 7 meeting, Kong spent the rest of his morning calling the parents and talking to them about SBELA’s future.
“It’s good to be able to tell them: we’re staying. It has been resolved,” she said.
Increase in deficits during declining enrollment
The Sophia Bremer Early Learning Academy (originally the Sophia Bremer Child Development Center) opened in 2010 after a $2.5 million donation from the Bremer Trust. College officials initially estimated that the 16,500 square foot center could accommodate 96 children at a time.
Kong said when the Olympic College closed in-person services in 2020, there was a rapid decline in staff and daycare enrollment.
The daycare staff is currently a small team, including an acting director, program coordinator, food service provider, teachers and hourly substitute teachers. The center is open to the public and offers care from Monday to Friday for children or part-time care on certain days.
Olympic College students receive a 20% discount at SBELA, which offers full-time child care for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers between $800 and $960 per month. The average monthly cost in Washington for (full-time) child care, according to ChildCare Aware, a benchmark and advocacy group, is $1,044 per child. Olympic College is one of 20 community and technical colleges in the state that offer child care services.
In two of the past five fiscal years, SBELA has experienced mounting deficits amid declining college enrolment. The center’s funding sources — including grants, state grants, tuition and COVID emergency relief funds — are all expected to decline over the next school years. The center’s total revenue has fallen from nearly $1.2 million before the pandemic to just $471,147 in the 2021-2022 projections. Deficits are occurring, according to the school’s impact evaluation, largely due to declining enrollment at the Olympic College.
According to the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, enrollment at Olympic College has declined over the past five school years. While 11,552 students were enrolled in the 2017-2018 school year, only 7,365 students attended classes in the 2021-2022 school year.
“These declining trends are not expected to change until 2025 and are expected to slowly improve,” the school wrote in an impact assessment for the Olympic College daycare outsourcing. Recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center revealed that community colleges have lost more than 827,000 students since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Public school child care programs — like SBELA at Olympic College — have also declined over the past decade. According to a 2021 analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education, community colleges across the country have seen the steepest decline in child care offerings.
And in Washington state, 46,300 community and technical college students, nearly a quarter of the community college population, are parents of dependent children. Over 22% of Olympic College students are parents of dependent children.
“It made my life easier”
Smallbeck and Samuel Hayden, a student at Olympic College, began sending their daughter to SBELA in the fall of 2021. Hayden enrolled in 2020, when he and Smallbeck were both home to care for of their daughter. But once she was able to start caring for SBELA, things changed for their family.
“So it was something that, as a resource, I enjoyed. I was happy with it. It made my life easier. It made his life easier. And then it gave him a few hours too, for, like, ‘Oh, I have time to clean the house or I have time to do my homework,'” Anna said of Sam.
SBELA was a great service to their family, but Smallbeck didn’t want to see it fade after years of financial decline. Smallbeck’s concern was that outsourcing the center would lead to a decrease in the quality of education.
“She hasn’t been there that long, but she’s learned a lot since she’s been there,” Smallbeck said.
When Kong started working at the Sophia Bremer Early Learning Academy, before the pandemic, there was a full-time principal, a family health advocate, and “about 17 teachers and teaching assistants and hardworking students.” That number has declined in recent years, according to the school’s impact assessment.
Even though the number of children enrolled at SBELA has decreased over the past three school years, there are still more than 100 currently on the waiting list, according to Brendon Taga, vice president of student services at the Olympic College. But Kong says the lack of teacher capacity is preventing the college from accommodating more children.
“It’s not that the need isn’t there. The need is there. There aren’t any staff,” she said.
Taga stepped into the role of acting director of SBELA in mid-March. Hiring at SBELA, he says, is influenced by broader trends in college enrollment and an increase in demand for childcare.
“So as we have faced staffing issues, we have also had difficulty generating income, as this is directly related to the number of classes we can open and the number of children and families we can serve,” Taga said.
The number of child care providers in Kitsap County has also decreased by 18 since 2017, even as capacity for children has remained relatively stable. In Washington State, according to a 2021 report from the Washington State Professional Educator Standards Board, early childhood educator positions are experiencing some of the largest shortages in the state.
Taga says the center has generally relied on grants and fees, and contracting out the center was one of the options the school went with. Taga and Martin Cavalluzzi, president of the Olympic College, stressed that the school has always been committed to keeping the school open.
“We know that child care has a greater impact on community college students’ ability to access and achieve their educational goals,” Taga said. “And that’s why we made the decision at Olympic College to commit to providing this service on campus.
Cavalluzzi added: “We are 100 per cent committed to providing childcare, it was never a question of whether we were going to do it or not. We are going to do it “,
The school is now working to hire a permanent principal and fill open teaching positions, according to Devine. Kong and the SBELA staff are now waiting to welcome more students, hopefully by the end of next fall.
“We have a really big building and I would really like it to be full of kids,” Kong said.