Children’s lab merger miffs parents
A week after Didi Lopez’s daughter, Kira, was born, she put her on the waiting list to attend preschool at the Child Development Lab at Chico State University. Now 4, Kira is thriving at the lab, and Lopez is trying to figure out how to tell her she won’t be going there anymore.
University administrators say that budget cuts have forced the lab to be “restructured” in a partnership with the Associated Students, which runs the Children’s Center on campus.
Parents, who were told of the development on April 2, see the university’s move as essentially ending a half-century-old program and leaving their children in the lurch.
“The quality of the program is incredible. The supervision is excellent,” Lopez said. “There’s a sense of loss from everybody.”
Jeanne Thomas, the dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, who notified parents of the change, said it came down to money: Merging the lab would save $100,000 a year that could pay for 20 to 25 course sections for students.
“Our mission is to serve our undergrad and graduate students,” she said. “We absolutely need the money that this will free up.”
At the 22-child lab, 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds learn and play in a group of connected rooms and an outdoor area, able to be heard and observed though a two-way mirror by students in Chico State’s Child Development and Early Childhood Education programs.
Chela Patterson, director of activity fee for the A.S., said it came down to a choice between salvaging parts of the lab, which has been in Modoc Hall since 1964, by partnering with the Children’s Center or closing it altogether.
While Patterson said the details of the contract are still being worked out, including whether the university will try to charge the A.S. rent for the facility, Thomas, who is resigning to take a position at Eastern Michigan University, said, “as far as I’m concerned, this decision’s final.”
Children’s Center Director Susan Toussaint said she doesn’t know how many—if any—of the current lab students will find spaces in the new setting this fall. “It’s a whole new ball game,” she said. The Children’s Center mission and grants require that it give priority to student parents and those with low incomes.
Student Melinda Nickas’ 4-year-old daughter, Grace, attends the lab but has been on the Children’s Center waiting list for two years. “We’re just scrambling [to find a new preschool],” said Nickas, whose daughter is low on the needs-based priority list because she’s in a two-parent family.
The lab parents say they’ve heard good things about the Children’s Center, but they prefer the academic orientation of the lab and consider the center more like traditional day care.
Toussaint said the lab and the Children’s Center have similar philosophies, and they’ll fold in as much of the current program as possible. “There is a structured, planned curriculum,” she said. “It is a child care and development program.” But its primary purpose is to allow student parents access to the university, not to offer students research opportunities.
The decision shocked Barbara Mahler, a retired faculty member who ran the lab for 19 years. “I’m really devastated,” she said. “The Child Development Lab’s purpose and the wide service that it gives to the university is so well-documented and so well-embedded in the mission of the university.”
Mahler said her experience leads her to believe it would be next to impossible to recreate the lab in the context of the Children’s Center. In the A.S. program, children come and go according to their parents’ schedules, so there’s not as much consistency for students wanting to follow a particular child or relationship.
No one’s sure what will happen to the faculty co-directors, who deferred comment to their superiors. Thomas said most of the savings would come from not paying those instructors’ salaries, but there’s a chance the Children’s Center could choose to hire them.
Bruce Bechtol, a retired geography and planning professor and Chico State graduate, said he is frustrated with the way the decision was made—seemingly behind the scenes and without involving parents. He’s circulating a petition against the change.
“These things happen. Programs get cut. But they should take place in a transparent environment so people understand,” Bechtol said. “People get angry when they’re blindsided.”
Nickas said, "There are so many things we would have been willing to do to work to keep the program for our kids, and we haven’t been given the opportunity."