Palm Beach Gardens parents upset over college’s plans to close school

Worried parents are rallying to fight a Palm Beach State College decision to shutter a school the college operates across from its Palm Beach Gardens campus.

They received an “urgent message” from college President Ava Parker on Wednesday, telling them the Center for Early Learning will close for good June 15 because it lost $1 million in state money. 

“As a result, the college has had to prioritize the funding of academic and student-focused programs. This has led to the shutdown of programs that we are passionate about, including programs that provide valuable services to our communities,” she wrote in the email to parents. 

The college opened the center in January 2001 to serve its students and staff, but their children make up less than 20 percent of the enrollment, according to Parker’s letter. 

About 80 children are enrolled at the school on RCA Boulevard next to a Palm Beach Gardens fire station. 

Although the state cut $1 million for the college in the 2017-2018 year, it also earned an additional $1.2 million for its performance, according to a letter from Parker to the District Board of Trustees. That money has to be earned every year and is more difficult to keep than it is to attain, she wrote. 

Early childhood education students can complete observation hours and nursing majors can do clinicals at the center. The school also offers voluntary pre-kindergarten and accepts children who get financial assistance from the Palm Beach County Early Learning Coalition. 

‘Part of the community’

The Center for Early Learning used to accept infants, but it has since ended care for children younger than one. Adam Rossmell was taking classes in landscaping design and human resources when his son, now about to turn two, was last infant to get in, he said. 

Parents have offered to pay as much as $225 more per child per month in tuition to cover the shortfalls and  to start a scholarship for families who can’t afford the increase, Rossmell said. 

“It’s an established part of the community,” he said. “We’re trying to do everything we can.” 

Trauma nurse Karol Castellanos earned two associate degrees from the college and is about to graduate with her bachelor’s degree in nursing, thanks to the help of the Center for Early Learning. She and her husband don’t have any family in Florida, nor do they trust others in watching their children, ages 10, 6 and 2. 

She was “scared and skeptical” as a new mom enrolling her first daughter in the center, but she felt at ease within days, she said. All three of her children have gone through the center, where her two-year-old son is still a student. 

“This is NOT a daycare or a regular school. This is our family for the last 8 years!” she wrote to the Palm Beach Post. “The place that gave me the opportunity to go to school and reach my professional dreams while my kids were loved, protected, respected, appreciated and taught the values and morals that lack (in) this world.” 

Many of the teachers have been at the center since it opened, and it has little to no turnover, according to the college and parents. 

The college told parents that they can take their children out of the school if they find an alternative before the closing. Waiting lists at other preschools with similar reputations are a year and a half or more, parents said. 

When Andres Dominguez found out the center is slated to close, he started updating a list of schools he made in 2013, when he and his wife first moved to the area. He came to the same conclusion. 

“The more research I do, the more I am convinced the Center for Early Learning is the best option for my daughters,” he said. “They are simply the best.” 

His four-year-old daughter is very bright and struggled to build relationships with children her own age, he said. Her teachers worked hard with her to develop her social skills. 

“That is something that I don’t think I would be able to find anywhere else,” he said. 

Parents plan to urge the college’s leadership to reconsider the school closing during a trustees meeting 5 p.m. Tuesday at the Boca Raton Campus, 801 Palm Beach State College Drive. The District Board of Trustees will meet in the Humanities and Technology Building. 

It’s not clear when and how the decision to close the school was made. The college’s trustees received information about potential cuts to the Center for Early Learning at an Oct. 10 workshop. The item was listed as “for information only.” 

Student tutoring centers, theaters and faculty sabbaticals could be cut to plan for shrinking state money, and the Small Business Development Center and ethics institute could be eliminated, according to the October presentation.