Model institution squeezed

Jordan reflects wider crisis

Staff WriterOctober 13, 2005 

The Jordan Child and Family Enrichment Center on Glenwood Avenue near downtown Raleigh opened four years ago to great fanfare.

It built a state-of-the-art facility with millions in donations. It received financial backing from its parent nonprofit, the Methodist Home for Children. And it designed a program using years of research into how best to educate young children, particularly those with economic disadvantages or developmental disabilities.

Again and again, the Jordan Center, with its wraparound porch, oak rocking chairs, sprawling playground and bright, well-outfitted classrooms, was hailed as a model that could be replicated anywhere. And it seemed to be succeeding: As recently as last year, the center was turning away Inside-the-Beltline parents willing to pay as much as $1,000 a month for the care of their kids.

Over the past year, however, financial troubles have altered that picture dramatically. The Jordan Center has raised tuition, curtailed programs and laid off teachers and specialists. Its parent organization has decided it can no longer afford to subsidize the program as much as it did, and it even shut down a sister day care in the Walnut Terrace public housing complex.

To increase revenue, Jordan is also increasing class size; now, a cardboard sign in front of the five-star day care beckons families to enroll.

All of these difficulties call into question whether day care can be affordable and high-quality at the same time.

If a well-funded institution with an affluent clientele such as the Jordan Center cannot make ends meet, just what kind of day care can make it work -- and will anyone be able to afford it?

"They're experiencing what a lot of centers are experiencing, which is how to do a high-quality day-care program that's affordable," said Sue Russell, president of Child Care Services Association, a nonprofit agency in Chapel Hill that researches the quality, affordability and accessibility of child care.

Russell said day care is caught in a conflicting set of goals.

First is the necessity that many parents work. Second is the desire to elevate child care to improve academic performance, particularly among those more likely to do poorly, such as those from low-income families.

Finally is the need to keep the cost of child care low. Most parents can't afford the very best day care; at the Jordan Center, infant tuition is now $1,250 a month. Yet government and businesses have been unwilling, so far, to make a larger commitment to the cost of care, Russell said.

Economic realities

For low-income children at Jordan, for example, the center receives state and federal subsidies totalling $636 per month for 4-year-olds and $837 for infants. The center's costs per child, meanwhile, run from $930 for the older children to $1,350 for infants. Even the center's private-pay tuition rates don't cover the full cost of the program; the Methodist Home has kicked in as much as $600,000 each year from its own endowment to help cover the center's $1.8 million annual budget.

Still, with that institutional backing, the Jordan Center was supposed to show the region that top-notch day care could be made available to all. Its teachers are better trained and earn more than those at most day cares in the Triangle. It welcomes all children -- including those with disabilities -- and employs specialists to care for those with unusual needs.

As part of a state pilot program, Jordan added a classroom for "medically fragile" children. It also featured two "More at Four" classrooms -- the program launched by Gov. Mike Easley to help at-risk preschoolers succeed.

The trouble was that virtually none of these endeavors paid for themselves. And earlier this year, the Methodist Home's financial struggles caught up.

The home's annual contribution of cash threatened the principal of the nonprofit's endowment. The home's leaders said it could no longer continue on its path and announced drastic measures to cut costs.

Now, the Jordan Center is no longer on course toward financial disaster, says Sam Sugg, chairman of the Methodist Home's board. The Methodist Home, a decades-old Raleigh nonprofit, runs a variety of programs for kids -- foster care, group homes, adoption services -- and all the others are in good financial shape, he said.

Parents at Jordan remain deeply loyal, but some are anxious about cutbacks at the center and the announced resignations of the day care's director, Anne Carver, and the nonprofit's president, the Rev. Mike Safley, in recent weeks.

Sugg said those developments are unrelated to the center's troubles. Carver declined to be interviewed for this story, and Safley did not return phone calls.

Quality assurance

Sugg believes the changes so far have not hurt program quality. Merging the Jordan Center with the much smaller Walnut Terrace not only eliminated overhead costs but improved the diversity of the Jordan Center, he said.

Increasing the size of classes by an average of two children, Sugg said, keeps the Jordan Center's teacher-student ratios below the state's requirements for a five-star license.

Perhaps the biggest worries for parents are changes in the way children with disabilities are cared for.

The Jordan Center previously employed four specialists to care for such children. Now, just one specialist works at the center, and children get additional services from visiting Wake County therapists and caseworkers.

"There's a great deal of concern on the part of parents of children with special needs," said Joe Diab, whose daughter Maggie, 2, is enrolled in the Jordan Center's toddler room. Maggie isn't a special-needs child, but Diab serves on an assessment team asked to examine how to make the center viable. He is acutely aware, he said, of what other parents are saying.

What parents are saying is that they don't want to give up the Jordan Center as it was originally conceived.

They, and families everywhere, may not have a choice.

Staff writer Amy Gardner can be reached at 829-8902 or agardner@newsobserver.com.

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