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Take Our Children, Please

Parents unite to help save Loyola's beloved preschool program.



By Ben Joravsky

For the last month or so Loyola University officials have been planning to close the preschool on the north end of the lakefront campus.

The preschool, located in a converted three-flat, was losing too much money and drawing too few children to justify its existence, they declared. No matter how much parents and Loyola staffers protested, the officials said the decision was final--nothing could change their minds.

Well, guess what? On Monday the officials announced they'd changed their minds.

The preschool will remain open, at least for another year and probably much longer, because requests for applications have been pouring in since word of the impending closing hit the street. "There's a lot of lessons you can learn from this, because we faced a situation lots of community groups face," says Charlie McBarron, a parent active in the effort to keep the school open. "This was a classic case where a big institution dug in its heels on an idea even though it made no sense. Then you have to spend so much time trying one way or another to get them to see the light. You have to give Loyola credit. When we forced the issue, they changed. How many institutions would do that?"

The move to close the school began in December, when university president John Piderit issued the so-called Loyola 2000 memo. It reported a $20 million deficit in the current budget and called on the university to balance the books by making cuts and raising fees.

On January 12, John Kambanis, a Loyola vice president, called in preschool director Beverly Donovan and told her the school would close by June 30.

As far as the university was concerned, the cut was an obvious one. The preschool's enrollment was down and it had lost nearly $90,000 last year. "This was not a personal decision directed at anyone in particular--it was strictly a budget decision based on the best needs of Loyola," university spokesperson Elizabeth Wilson said only last week. "We've been operating at a deficit, and the university's board said it had to stop."

But parents and staffers felt hurt, betrayed, and worried about the future. "This would force me to leave the university--I won't just put my child anywhere," said Robyn Johnson, a criminal-justice student whose three-year-old son, Sam, attends the preschool. "I'm disappointed in Loyola. I thought they cared about students like me. They talk about family values, but they're not practicing them."

Beyond harsh, the decision seemed misguided. Yes, the preschool needed more children. But Loyola hadn't tried to market it to the community. Donovan thought that the university was acknowledging this failing when it hired her last summer and told her to erase the deficit by increasing enrollment.

"I came from Iowa to take this job. I like Loyola. I like the message it sent about children and families," says Donovan. "When they interviewed me I asked if the preschool had the university's full support, and they said yes. I knew enrollment was low. But I felt once we spread the word--once we let people know we were here--enrollment would go up."

Parents said they had no doubt that the school could find more children. Not because its curriculum is especially innovative or because it's a good deal financially--full-time tuition is a steep $650 a month. "It's just so humanely run," said Martha Larson, whose three-year-old son, Oscar, goes there. "There are six full-time staffers and some [Loyola work-study] students, so the kids get a lot of attention. They mix the classes up agewise so the older children lead the younger ones. It's a warm, nurturing environment. They offer a lot of activity without overdoing it. It's geared around people, not rules. You have to ask yourself why they would close such a good school, particularly when there's such a great demand for quality education."

Parents and school supporters appealed to university officials, most of whom were sympathetic but unhelpful. "The University must direct its full focus and attention on its higher education mission," wrote Kambanis in response to a letter from McBarron. "The University regrets that it can no longer provide the Pre-School service."

"It was as though they really weren't listening to us--they were just determined to close the school no matter what," said McBarron. "I have problems with them saying it's not part of their mission. First of all, they have students and staff who send their children here, so they need it for them. Second, this is a religious institution, which should have a priority on caring for the needs of children. An irony is that Loyola will be hosting a national conference in October on the needs of children and one of the items on the agenda will be quality day care.

"Closing it doesn't even make sense from a financial point of view. They just spent all that money converting the apartment units into a school. They just brought Beverly in to run it. Now they're going to just throw that investment away?"

As the parents saw it, the preschool would break even with just a few students more. "We understand that the university has budget problems, but that's got nothing to do with us," said Larson. "If we build up to full enrollment we won't have a deficit anymore. To make it viable we need 44 full-time children, and right now we have 33. I think we can find parents in the area willing to send their kids here. I think we can find ten children just among Loyola faculty, students, and staff. Since Beverly got here we've increased enrollment. Since Loyola announced that they were closing the school, we've enrolled eight new kids. That's because parents heard about us only when they heard we were closing. I guess they figured, let's get in on a good thing even if it's only for a few months."

By February the parents were sending out press releases, organizing a fund-raiser, and calling on Loyola to let them run the school if that's what it took.

The university would not budge. "I hope this doesn't make us look like bad guys, because it's not like that," said Wilson. "This is not personal against the preschool. We're just not the appropriate sponsor for it. That doesn't mean the community doesn't need this service. But we had to ask ourselves--does this fit with the mission of Loyola? And the answer is no.

"There were two reasons for the cuts. From a business perspective, the preschool has been operating at a deficit since its inception in 1994. At the same time it was not serving the purpose for which it was designed. It was originally conceived as a benefit for the faculty and staff. And now it serves fewer faculty and staff. It was never meant to be a neighborhood service, and it has evolved into that. With Loyola 2000 the university was forced to look at itself from top to bottom, and this stood out.

"Now I know that one issue the parents have with us is the time frame. It was unsettling for them to have this closing just suddenly announced. Well, one reason that it was one of the first announcements of cuts was to allow families the time to make appropriate changes. I'm a parent of two daughters, and I know how upsetting any changes in the routine can be. We thought this was the humane way to do what we had to do."

But on Monday Kambanis and Loyola's executive vice president, Ron Walker, met with Donovan and parents. The university officials told them that the preschool would remain open for at least another year to let Loyola see how much enrollment grows.

"It's a great decision for everyone involved," says Wilson. "It gives us a chance to make this work."

Within minutes of the announcement, parents were on the phone celebrating and trying to figure out what had gone right in a situation where things usually go wrong.

"I think the decision to close the school was made because they figured it was easy to carry out--who's going to care about a preschool?" says McBarron. "But when they saw we were not going away and, most importantly, when they realized they didn't have to make this cut, they changed. I guess it shows you certainly can fight City Hall, or in this case the big university."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Marhta Larson, Beverly Donovan, Charlie McBarron photo by Leroy Katz.

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