It’s been three weeks since Grace Williams checked her grandson’s cubby at Barrett Early Learning Center and found a letter announcing the decision to close the nearly 80-year-old daycare center later this month. A fixture in the city’s Ridge Street neighborhood and for decades one of the few local child care options for African-American families, Barrett is known for two things: diversity and affordability. But between a new payment system for state-subsidized students and a decline in monetary donations, the center’s board of directors said keeping it open was no longer financially viable.
Feeling blindsided, Williams was one of dozens of parents and community members to squeeze into the child-sized chairs at Barrett on Monday, July 29, determined to come up with a way to keep the center up and running. By the end of the meeting, a new board had formed—including parents, alumni, a Building Goodness Foundation representative, and City Councilor Dede Smith—an interim director was chosen, and fundraising plans were in the works. As long as the group can come up with $70,000 in the next two weeks to cover the deficit and costs of building repairs, Barrett will remain open.
Williams, who’s lived in the neighborhood since the 1970s and has walked most of her children and grandchildren to Barrett for years, was one of the first to raise her hand at last week’s meeting and volunteer to help with fundraising.
“I just knew I couldn’t let this happen,” said Williams. “That school is really needed in the community.”
Barrett, located on Ridge Street, opened in 1935 and was originally available to African-American families only. It now serves about 35 children ages 2 to 5, many of whom receive state funding through the Virginia Department of Social Services (VDSS) child care subsidy program.
Williams said Barrett has always been affordable and accessible for her family. But since VDSS implemented the Virginia Electronic Child Care (VA-ECC) system at all centers accepting state subsidies, Williams said she’s been frustrated with the new payment method.
The VA-ECC system, implemented in 2011, requires centers like Barrett to install a point-of-service device, similar to a credit card machine, and assign a swipe card to each child. Parents swipe their kids in and out each day, which records attendance information and calculates automated payments that are deposited from VDSS into the provider’s account twice a month. The system was designed to give VDSS consistent and accurate attendance information and to eliminate manual invoice processing and check writing.
“It has not been a good transition,” Williams said. “One day I go in and can swipe in and out, and the next day it says my card is denied. The state can’t just hold money like that.”
The letter sent home to parents cited the program as one of the primary reasons for the school’s closure.
“The state’s unpredictable and cumbersome VA-ECC reimbursement swipe card system, combined with a decrease in philanthropic contributions, has made it difficult for a center to meet its financial obligations,” read the letter written by former board president Carlos Armengol.
Gail Esterman, child care quality manager at Charlottesville’s Children, Youth, & Family Services, said she didn’t know specifics about Barrett’s financial situation, but wasn’t surprised by the announcement that it would close. Other nearby centers, like Bears & Blankets Academy in Staunton, have recently shut down for the same reason.
VDSS officials say it’ll take some time to iron out the kinks.
“Transition to the VA-ECC system has involved a learning curve for both families receiving assistance and child care providers,” said VDSS Media Specialist Andrew Sitler.
He said the department is providing training materials, technical assistance meetings, and establishing a help desk for providers to call with questions.
Despite concerns about the card swipe system, the group of roughly 50 people at last week’s meeting said they were determined to keep Barrett open.
Former board member Melvin Carter said this is not the first time Barrett has been in danger of closing, and a similar group gathered about 15 years ago with the same concerns.
“Barrett’s been here too many times,” Carter told the group. “We need commitment from a board and from the community if you truly love it. If you don’t love it, we close on the 16th of August.”
Eugene Williams, who’s lived in Charlottesville for most of his 85 years, sat quietly with his wife at the meeting while others shared stories about Barrett and the neighborhood. His was one of the first African-American families to move in on Ridge Street in the 1950s, and he recalled watching white homeowners flee as more blacks came to the neighborhood. Now it’s known as one of the most diverse areas in the city, but he said racism is still evident in Charlottesville. Eliminating places like Barrett—open to all, with a history of serving the underserved—will only set the city back.
Williams said he hasn’t been impressed with the city’s attempts at addressing prejudice, and doesn’t think efforts like the Dialogue on Race or the Human Rights Task Force are productive uses of time and money. A child care center that attracts a diverse clientele and teaches acceptance and inclusion to kids as young as 2 years old is a better place to start, he said.
“It sets a stage for diversity,” he said. “There’s no better place to start a dialogue on racism than with children.”
Retired educator Maria Bell stepped up to serve as Barrett’s interim director after former director Shannon Morris Banks left last Friday.
“I just didn’t want to see it go,” said Bell, who’s been volunteering at Barrett for two years. “I don’t think it’ll be very long before it’s turned around.”
Bell opened a day care center in a low-income Philadelphia neighborhood about 30 years ago. It is still thriving, and she credits that to the fact that the parents took ownership over it and made it a community-oriented center.
“I really believe that because it’s in the neighborhood, it should be run by the neighborhood people,” Bell said. “That’s what I want to bring to this one too—that same sense of ownership.”
Gail Esterman agreed, and said she hopes the new fundraising campaign will be a reminder of what a child care center can do for a neighborhood.
“People have gone there for generations, and there’s a lot of trust there,” Esterman said. “You can’t replace that. People need to be aware of what the loss would be for that community.”
Esterman said she was impressed and encouraged by the amount of enthusiasm at last week’s meeting, and hopes the new board will have momentum to keep Barrett going. It’s a viable plan, she said, but she cautions those involved to consider what can be accomplished in panic mode, versus what is sustainable long-term.
“If it’s going to survive, it really needs not to be operating on that kind of crisis management basis,” she said. “They really need to put things in place that will allow this center to be stable.”
The first fundraising event will be a lunch at Maya on Saturday, August 10. It will begin at 1pm, and a portion of each $30 meal will go directly to Barrett. The center is also accepting donations via mailed checks, or online at barrett.avenue.org.