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Windy City Kids' Sudden Closure Leaves Parents Scrambling for Child Care

By Lizzie Schiffman Tufano | March 11, 2013 6:35am | Updated on March 11, 2013 9:47am

DOWNTOWN — U.S. Rep. Danny Davis has joined parents fighting to keep a Downtown day care from closing, after the federal government abruptly announced it was shuttering the center, leaving dozens of families scrambling to find care.

Windy City Kids Children's Development Center, a state-of-the-art, federally funded day care center on the ground floor of the Harold Washington Social Security Administration building at 600 W. Madison St., is slated to shut down April 8.

The center cost $1.6 million to build in 1999, according to a Social Security Administration spokeswoman.

The administration tied the decision to the center's poor management by an outside operator and budget cuts. 

"I'd love to see the program spared," Davis (D-Ill.) said late last week. "Our children, as one songwriter said, are the future. Teach them well and let them lead the way."

But Davis, who met with administration officials last week, said he's unsure if administration leaders will budge on the deadline.

Parents — who formed a group called Save Windy City Kids — said they're devastated to lose the day care before the school year is over and at a time when it's difficult to find spots in other programs.

"There are waiting lists everywhere, and 90 days is not a lot of notice," said Sharon Hermes, who sends her 1-year-old son, Freddie, to the day care. "It's basically an eviction."

Hermes said she's stunned the government would no longer be using the high-quality facility built less than 15 years ago.

"The thought of them taking a bulldozer to that makes me sick," Hermes said.

The center was built for children of federal employees, but it's also open to the public. It has room for more than 80 kids and includes large playrooms, infant-friendly heated floors and a huge outdoor space with playground equipment in area of the Loop with little green space. At the time, a plaque was erected saying the center was "dedicated to our future generations."

The center is one of fewer than 130 in Chicago and 367 in Illinois to earn a coveted National Association for the Education of Young Children accreditation. There are about 13,000 licensed day care centers and homes in Illinois.

But in early January, the parents of 77 kids enrolled at Windy City were told they'd have to find new child care — and quickly.

In an email to parents, officials said the day care operator, Easter Seals, didn't conduct security checks of employees, didn't ensure half of the enrollees were children of federal employees and was not in compliance with state licensing requirements or NAEYC accreditation standards.

In addition, administration officials have blamed budget cuts for the decision.

"Child safety is the main concern," said Carmen Moreno, a Midwest Social Security Administration spokeswoman. "The accreditation and enrollment issues, as well, and budget also played a part."

But Barb Zawacki, CEO for Easter Seals Metropolitan Chicago, denied the administration's claims that there were accreditation issues or security problems.

"Our accreditation was never, never, never at risk, nor did we ever lose it," she said. "We never mismanaged the program."

She said the issue came down to budget and the fact that only a quarter of the kids at the school were related to federal employees.

"We're sorry to have to end our venture over there. It was very emotional, as I told the lady who came to tell me that news. I felt like she just put a knife in my heart because of the many wonderful things this program has provided children over the past 15 years," Zawacki said.

While the federal government didn't directly fund the site, foregoing rent, a security guard, cleaning and maintenance resulted in about $400,000 a year in expenses, according to parents who filed a Freedom of Information request with the administration.

Parents said they weren't worried about safety at the center and said they would be willing to pay higher tuition to cover expenses.

"Why not [charge] market rate?" said Toni White, who has a 5-year-old daughter at the center. Weekly rates range from $189 for preschool-age children to $280 for infants for nonfederal employees; rates are $166 to $230 for federal employees.

"We nonfederal parents would happily pay" higher rates, she said. "Wherever we go, we're going to have to pay an increased rate. We'd rather keep our kids where they're happy, with their friends, with the teachers they love. SSA just has to come to the table and work with us."

Parents said the administration repeatedly has denied requests for a meeting. Moreno declined to comment on the administration's interactions with parents.

Nathan Anderson's 3-year-old daughter enrolled at Windy City Kids a week before parents received the closure notice, after spending three years on the waiting list.

Anderson, whose wife works for the government, questioned why it was hard to find enough children of federal employees when many were put on a waiting list.

The parents even found a potential replacement operator to run the center: Children's Creative Learning Centers, "which already operates day care centers in three other SSA buildings without any compliance issues," parent Mollie Gifford Hertel said.

"Whatever problems there were with the old provider can be solved by a new provider, including the low federal demand," Anderson said.

Moreno declined to comment on whether the facility would ever be used again for child care. But in emails to parents, the administration said there were no plans for a new vendor to take over child care duties at the center.

Davis said he realizes the federal government has budget problems, particularly with the federal sequester. But he hopes a resolution can be found.

"I will continue to advocate on [the parents'] behalf, and who knows, somebody might be able to pull a rabbit out of the hat," he said. "So up until that fateful day comes, I'm still with them."