Daycare Director Reveals Reasons for Departure

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Tuesday, October 7, 2014, 7:15 am
Alice Dreger

When Nora Thompson (shown above) took over the daycare at the Bailey Community Center in July of 2013, she found significant problems with the way the program was being run. She told me in an email interview, “I quickly determined the staffing was not at state mandated levels, there were inadequate materials in the classrooms, and significant building issues that needed to be remedied.”

Staffing problems were especially troubling: “There was no assistant director. There were several hours in the day where there was no lead teacher in the classroom so there was no real leadership with the children.  Only one staff member in the center could work 40 hours a week and the rest were part-time.”

This was more than just a management challenge, according to Thompson; she says it meant substandard care: “For young children, continuity of care is essential. Having this staffing pattern created problems for the center in providing quality care as it was not unusual to have seven or eight caregivers in a room in one day.”

Charles Hoogstraten is an East Lansing resident and father of a daughter at the Bailey childcare program and of another daughter who recently graduated from the daycare to kindergarden. He told me that parents were extremely pleased with how Thompson improved the situation and ran the daycare: “We found the improvements she made in the center's organization, staffing, and curriculum to make a real difference in the experience of our daughters at Bailey and in our own connection to the center.”

Thompson did not come only to fix the problems and go. She says she “had planned on staying until I retired.” Why then her departure in August of this year?

“The heart of the challenge in restoring the center to quality was its affiliation with the Parks and Recreation Department,” she says. “There was no understanding of what is essential to provide high-quality care for young children. It was just management of facilities and getting ‘bodies’ in the room to provide care.  I believe if [the daycare] could have been administered by someone who understood child development and what elements are essential for a high quality childcare program, the results could have been different.”

She gives as example what happened with the playground: “There was $20,000 in an account earmarked for restoring the playground but I was not allowed to use it. This was essential for children's safety given the repairs that needed to be made to equipment. But it was not seen as a priority in the Parks and Recreation Department.”

Thompson says she tried to remedy the situation, making frequent requests to the Parks, Recreation & Arts division leadership. She also “made suggestions for how to increase enrollment and to increase use of the center.” But “in the end, the center was downsized and my suggestions were not utilized.  I realized my ideas and my suggestions were falling on deaf ears and no one was interested in improving the quality of the center if it came down to investing in it. I realized no matter how hard I tried, how many hours I worked, and what I was personally willing to do to save the center, it all rested on the shoulders of the Parks and Recreation leadership. They were not interested in preserving the center.”

She finally decided to move on: “Realizing I would have no collaboration with the Parks and Recreation leadership, I decided I had to look elsewhere for employment. I did not want to as I was, and am still, very supportive of the staff and families at Bailey.” But, she says, “I knew the huge potential for investigations and safety issues due to the poor investment of the city into the center and I was not willing to assume the risk.”

Thompson now works at MSU’s child development program where she believes that “high quality early childhood programming is valued and invested in.” Hoogstraten, the Bailey daycare father, says, “It's truly a shame that [Thompson] was not given the time and support needed to see [her] efforts bear fruit in terms of the program's enrollment and sustainability.”

Thompson and Hoogstraten were two of about sixteen people who spoke in defense of keeping the Bailey daycare open at the City Council’s work session of September 23. A number of Bailey residents and daycare parents in attendance took city staff to task for undermining the program in terms of failure of support for Thompson’s work, as well as failure to adequately advertise the program. Some parents said the City’s treatment of the center was what was leading to declining enrollments, numbers then used by City administration as a reason to close the daycare.

City Manager George Lahanas denied this reading of the situation, saying, “We didn’t create a crisis in our own program. . . . We did not try to sabotage the program.” On the issue of potential risk, he seemed to agree there with Thompson’s concerns, seeing risk, especially involving infants, as a reason to shut the program down.

Thompson, like many Bailey residents, is concerned that the alleged neglect by the City of the daycare may be part of a larger plan to close the Bailey Community Center altogether. ELi reported last week that the building is on a draft city list of “redevelopment ready” properties.

At the September 23 work session, long-time Bailey resident Sally Silver spoke of how residents, not the City, put in the resources needed to restore the landscape at the Community Center a couple of years ago. About the property’s grounds and the City’s attitude, Thompson told me, “I was even told when I wanted to start a community garden at Bailey, that it would be fine as long as the community members didn't plant anything in it.  I was told that community gardens were places that were well-known for fighting.” She adds, “This is just an example of the kind of red tape I regularly ran into with that department.”

Tim McCaffrey, Director of Parks, Recreation & Arts is away and was therefore unavailable to comment on this story. In response to my questions, including about the community garden issue, City Manager George Lanahas responded, “We do not discuss specifics regarding our current or former employees, beyond dates of employment and position held. [Nora Thompson] voluntarily resigned her position with the City.”


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