End of an era: Barrett Early Learning Center to close

The announced closure of the nearly 80-year-old Barrett Early Learning Center on Ridge Street has sent waves of dismay through the community.

"This was a good school with loving teachers," says Kim Lauter, a Ridge Street resident who sent all three of her children to Barrett and describes the school's planned August 16 closure as "heartbreaking."

In particular, she notes the longevity of the staff, all of whom, she says, have been there at least 10 years.  "We obviously feel extremely comfortable with all the teachers," says Lauter. "They've been incredibly open talking about what's going on with our kids."

First opened in downtown Charlottesville in 1935 as the Janie Porter Barrett Day Nursery, the daycare moved to the Ridge Street location and became the Barrett Daycare Center in 1984, where it has continued to serve a diverse population of Charlottesville pre-schoolers, most of them from underprivileged families.

"Last time I was there, it showed a very diversified group," says lifelong Charlottesville resident and civil rights activist Eugene Williams, who praises the center as a place where children learn racial tolerance that they will carry with them for life. "To me, it's a shame at this stage for it to close up," he says.

While finances were always tight at the nonprofit, which relies heavily on reimbursement from the Department of Social Services, the Center was stable financially, its board president says, until September 2011 when the DSS implemented a change in the process by which daycare centers receive payment for low-income children.

"Frankly, I thought we were humming along pretty well," says Barrett board president Carlos Armengol, a local pediatrician who joined the board 13 years ago. He says the board and its current director, Shannon Banks, worked hard to erase debt accumulated by previous directors during the 1990s, and were proud of their accomplishments that included improvements to the building and the playground.

"We even had a rainy day fund," says Armengol, who notes that watching the funds slip away over the past two years has been an exercise in frustration.

While the previous system allowed daycare centers to fill out attendance forms and submit to the local social services department— a process that Armengol says resulted in payment within two days— the new system requires parents to swipe a card at pick-up and drop-off, a system he and others say is rife with problems, particularly because families are issued only one card.

"One parent picks up, another drops off— the center doesn't get reimbursed unless they're swiped both in and out," says Armengol. Missed swipes— a frequent occurrence, he says, means more paperwork for the center, and because the payments are now processed at the state's Department of Social Services in Richmond, it was suddenly taking weeks or longer for the center to get paid.

Barrett isn't the only daycare center suffering under the new system.

"I almost need a bookkeeper to keep up with it," says Janet Jackson, director of Hilltop Daycare Center on Long Street, another child care center that serves a diverse population, many of whom are lower income. Parents forgetting their cards— or forgetting to swipe them— translates to extra paperwork for Jackson.

"If you have three or four, that's time consuming, and it's time you're not spending with the children," she notes. "It's not a friendly situation."

While Armengol says Barrett's board won't change its mind about closing, he remains hopeful that the building— which is owned by the United Way— will remain a childcare center.

"I have been saying all along to anyone that will listen that our plan to close the center and some other group's plans to continue the center are not mutually exclusive," he says, noting that since the news of the closure first broke, he's been approached by a number of individuals and entities interested in carrying on the Barrett tradition.

"If a group can come forward with a plan, then by all means it can go on," he says. "I'd be tickled, and more than willing to help with the transition. But it's going to take a lot of coordination."


How did it come to this without the community being informed? We all know the state of childcare in Charlottesville and we are in crisis stage. I would like to think that the city of Charlottesville could provide publicity for special fundraisers and come to the aid of this historic institution. Humanity at work - not children lost in a scramble for warm and loving childcare.
It would be tragic for this icon to disappear.
Pamela Meyers

The governor's watch would be enough to keep it going.

This is sad for the community, because we've taken pride in Barrett for generations. I presume the center staff and board exhausted every option--including, I hope, talking to other subsidized day cares to find out how they handled similar issues. I'd be interested to know whether similar day cares are closing throughout Virginia; if not, then other issues were also presenting themselves. I wonder if they could have kept the cards on site so parents could always access them. I realize theoretically there could then be fraud (staff swiping cards for kids who weren't there), but I believe the honor system would have prevailed. It would have been too much of a financial strain for parents to have to pay cash if they forgot their cards; paying cash and being reimbursed isn't viable when people are on a tight budget.

p.s. not really sad *because* we've taken pride in it, but sad because it has been an institution of a caliber we have been proud of.

Closed down because of stupid bureaucracy. It is a shame. A social services agency that actually accomplished some good.
Reverse the rules that caused the problem with their reimbursement- but that would be too much like some bean counter having to use common sense.

It's not closed yet. If you want to help the school stay open, there's going to be a lot of ways. Keep informed by 'liking' the school on FB at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Barrett-Early-Learning-Center/11697052176... . We're gonna be doing a lot, and your help might help put the school over the top.

Keeping the cards at the day care center is not allowed by Virginia Dept of social services. And yes, other centers are struggling financially with the same reimbursement issues.