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Education

The end of an early childhood education program at the University of Utah highlights larger problems

A photo of the Emery Building on the U campus.
David Titensor
/
The University of Utah
The Child and Family Development Center is housed at the Alfred Emery Building on the University of Utah campus.

When Clayton Norlen and his spouse, Aenon Johnson, started thinking about having children, one of their main priorities was finding child care that was just the right fit.

“I believe in the power of education, and I wanted to see that for my daughter in early childhood education during those formative years,” Norlen said. “Learning colors, learning shapes, learning letters. Those are foundational, educational topics that last throughout the life of a person. They set the stage for how you're going to learn.”

So they did their research and fell in love with the Child and Family Development Center, or CFDC, at the University of Utah. It’s a program that primarily serves university faculty and staff, and Norlen works in IT at the U.

“We planned our pregnancies around CFDC enrollment,” he said.

After nearly three years on the waitlist, Norlen said they were “elated” to get their oldest child in the program.

But in early August, just a few months after their daughter joined the center, Norlen and around 30 other University of Utah employees learned it would be ending, and a different on-campus program would take over.

“We were just shocked,” he said. “The next thought [was], ‘Oh God, what am I going to do?’ We’re just getting stable, and then this massive change. After waiting three years, my first thought was we'll never find child care again.”

The expansion would have prioritized kids who were already in the program, if their parents’ chose to stay on. Then, just a week ago, families received an email explaining that transition would no longer be happening and they would need to figure something else out.

The abrupt changes have caused confusion among parents and a sense of being left out of decisions that directly impact their families.

Jerry Basford, an associate vice president for student affairs, oversees the child care programs at the university.

He said part of the problem is they’re having trouble hiring teachers.

“In these positions, because of pay, I think we do get into a dignity deficiency of how much they get paid and how much they go through,” Basford said. “There's a lot of stress in this kind of work.”

The university currently has a job posting for a full-time, early childhood lead teacher. They’re looking for someone with a bachelor’s degree, and the pay range is $12 to $16 an hour plus benefits.

While they try to fill positions, Basford said they’ve been able to offer some parents slots that are available elsewhere on campus.

“We are still committed to looking for ways to get these children into child care,” he said. “We're not leaving 30 families without child care.”

Annie Frazier spent nearly four years as the director of the CFDC. She’s an expert in early childhood education and has been in the field for more than 20 years.

She said what’s happening at the university is emblematic of a larger problem with the way society views child care.

“There definitely is a child care crisis in the country, in the state of Utah and on campus,” Frazier said. “Everybody is aware of it, whether it's based on teacher shortage or based on classroom availability.”

She said it will take all stakeholders coming together to support working families.

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