By Rachael Smith firstname.lastname@example.org Feb 25, 2020
As of July 31 Little Wings Early Learning Center located on HumanKind’s campus will be closing after being open 12 years.
On Monday HumanKind shared a letter with parents telling them that after much deliberation and regret it would be closing its pre-school services and will only provide summer camp to its current students ranging from two and a half to five year olds.
“We have taken great pride and been honored to care for nearly 300 children since opening 12 years ago,” the email, sent from HumanKind President Bob Dendy reads. “Over time, the community’s needs have changed, and the program is not financially sustainable.”
Little Wings currently has 26 students enrolled for the year with half graduating and attending kindergarten in the fall.
The closure will affect six teachers who will receive full severance, Ashley Graham, Director of Family & Children Services at HumanKind said Tuesday.
The nonprofit stated its first priority is to do all it can to ease the effect of the closure on families.
“Our community is fortunate to have many options for preschool and school-age children. We recognize that there is a critical need for infant and toddler care in our community, but due to the physical limitations of our building, HumanKind has not been able to offer this service,” Dendy said.
HumanKind told parents in a follow up email it is working with community partners to address this need, and will continue to provide a variety of other programs and services to families with young children.
Part of the challenge Little Wings has had is in its physical space, which Graham said is not equipped or licensed to serve infants to three year olds.
“And we know there’s a big need for zero to three care in our community and it’s also very valuable to have that zero to five continuum,” she said. “So full-time working parents who need care at birth, when they get into a childcare center, they’re staying there for five years primarily.”
She said HumanKind felt it was duplicating services that were already offered by public preschool programs.
“We feel like it’s important for our community to utilize the public dollars that we have for the Virginia Preschool Initiative and for HeadStart to serve our greatest needs children first and organizations like ours can come in and fill in the gaps,” she said.
According to data collected by HumanKind from the Virginia Department of Social Services Licensing Page, phone calls to all licensed providers to determine actual capacity by age, U.S. Census Bureau, Kids Count Data Center, the total capacity for zero to three year old licensed child care services in Lynchburg is 344 but the number of those children in the city is 2,866.
The total capacity of three to five year old licensed child care services is 977 and there are 1,940 in the city.
The Center for American progress defines a child care desert as a community where there is a ratio of 3:1 children for every licensed child care slot. Lynchburg’s licensed infant and toddler child care deficit for children with all parents in the workforce is double that.
Courtney Sinha, parent of three year old Nora, said her child was only enrolled in Little Wings for one year and was excited about attending the school until she started kindergarten.
“We love it, it’s been a wonderful experience,” she said. “It’s like a family. I was really sad because we love her teachers, she’s got a great little class and we love the diversity of Little Wings. It’s been such a great fit for her.”
Sinha has already begun looking for other options of where send her daughter in the fall.
Little Wings was the first facility Nora had been placed in and when Sinha was looking for childcare, she quickly found there were many wait lists and high dollar signs attached to the programs.
“Little Wings was a little more affordable, which was a real benefit to families,” she said. “We felt like the affordability brought in more diversity than we saw from some of the others.”
Going to Little Wings five days a week was usually the highlight of Nora’s day and she was never in a hurry to leave.
“I feel confident we will find someplace we will grow to love but this has been a wonderful first experience,” Sinha said. “We felt so embraced and welcomed in that school. It’s going to be a real loss for us.”
Last summer Little Wings teamed up with United Way of Central Virginia and Head Start after the United Way was awarded a grant from the state to provide Head Start children with preschool services in a private childcare setting.
Bill Varner, president and CEO of United Way of Central Virginia, said this closure and the closure of other childcare providers are something that causes him great discern and said it is a national issue that is sneaking up on this area.
“Like most of these social challenges, they don’t exist in a vacuum,” he said. “They are caused by certain problems and they cause downstream problems.”
He said he recognizes that making it work economically as a childcare provider is extraordinarily difficult.
“It’s a heavily regulated business and childcare providers just can’t survive unless they have robust fundraising as part of their organization or families who can pay the full tuition to support families who cannot,” he said.
Many staff members are not paid well, he said, and usually don’t receive adequate health insurance because the providers cannot afford to offer it.
“The big thing that worries me is that over the past several years a number of these have closed and it’s not an isolated incident. When people drop their child off at childcare, they do so so they can go to school or work. If childcare goes away, that’s a problem that has downstream consequences,” he said. “If you’re making it more difficult for people to work who want to work, that is a barrier that will result in further lack of education, transportation, housing and taking care of physical and mental needs. It’s a ripple effect that is potentially catastrophic.”
He knows there is no easy solution but said it will require effort from multiple employers and organizations that are willing to come together to figure it out.
Jane Gerdy, executive director of Elizabeth’s Early Learning Center, said 23 years after opening, Lynchburg still faces the same problem it did when it opened in 1997 in working address the lack of affordable childcare.
“The reality is that it is not possible to cover the expenses involved in providing and maintaining a well-equipped and safe facility with trained, professional staff with tuition income that is also affordable to parents,” she said. “This is not only true for families that are economically disadvantaged but also for the middle class. This is impacting workforce development in Lynchburg and is leaving our very youngest citizens vulnerable.”
The Early Childhood Care and Education Committee of the Bridges to Progress City initiative is working to bring awareness to City leaders, individuals, businesses and religious organizations in the community to address the problem together and to seek support from donors who care about the health, safety and future of children, she said.
“It will take a concerted, collaborative effort and support from both the public and private sector to solve this serious problem in our community,” she said.