Two weeks ago, the Orient published an article titled, “Beyond the waitlists, Children’s Center serves youngest in community.” After receiving more than 30 online comments, the Orient chose to take a closer look at recent changes at the Center.
The Bowdoin College Children’s Center is a “big recruitment attraction for the faculty,” according to Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer Katy Longley. The Center is owned and run by the College, with an operating budget comprised of tuition paid by parents and additional money provided by Bowdoin.
The Center has faced a period of upheaval in recent years. Since 2011, the Center has had three different directors and three different administrators have overseen the Center. The leadership and oversight changes have caused staff and families to reconsider their affiliation with the Center.
Between two directors
The period of change and turmoil began in the Center when Kris Gould, who had served as the director of the Center since April 2003, retired in October 2011.
During her tenure, Gould reported to Bill Torrey, the former senior vice president for planning and development. Torrey stepped down from his role at the College in the spring of 2011; Gould said that his departure was one of multiple reasons that she decided to retire a few months later.
At the time of Gould’s retirement, Margaret Hazlett, former senior associate dean of student affairs, began overseeing the Center. Heather Stephenson, a teacher at the Center, took over as interim director, while Hazlett, a consultant, and a search committee of parents, faculty, and Human Resources (HR) representatives looked for a candidate to fill the director position.
During the interim period, F.R. Vance, a teacher at the Center from 2009 to 2011, raised concerns about fire exits not being shovelled. Not satisfied with Stephenson’s response to his concerns, Vance wrote about them in a daily blog post he compiled for his students’ parents.
Vance claims he was called into a meeting with Stephenson and Hazlett, in which they reprimanded him for the posts.
Stephenson declined to comment on this incident.
Two other former teachers the Orient interviewed, both of whom wished to remain anonymous, said that they were not supported by Hazlett during the interim period.
According to a current teacher at the Center (who wished to remain anonymous in order to “keep an even keel”), the shovelling issue has been resolved.
“Other than that [incident] I had a great time at Bowdoin, really I did. I liked the students, I liked the faculty, and I liked the staff,” Vance said. “I had great teachers to work with. I did have a good time teaching there until the end.”
A new vision
In the spring of 2012, the search for a new director came to a head when parents and staff of the Center spoke with finalists for the position. With the advice of those parents and staff members, the search committee hired Martha Eshoo in May.
Although the search committee was hoping for a director who could work full time at the Center, an exception was made for Eshoo. Currently, Eshoo works at the Center three days a week. In her time away from the Center, she is an instructor at Wheelock College in Massachusetts, a job she has held since the 1980s.
“We thought that the plusses and strengths that Martha would bring to the Center outweighed not having her there full time,” said Hazlett in a phone interview with the Orient. “Many of us thought it was great that she was staying engaged in the classroom, that that would help bring more best practices and more current practices to the Center.”
One of Eshoo’s first initiatives as the new director of the Center was to introduce a play-based curriculum. The Center was using an integrated approach—a combination of best practices among different early education philosophies—when Eshoo became director. The play-based curriculum is just another added component.
Eshoo said that her curriculum looks at two strands of things: “That children are playing in ways that are not interrupted and that children are playing repeatedly so they can go deeper and deeper into their play.”
“Our belief and what research shows is that when children are playing, their brains are actually growing and being creative,” she said.
Although Eshoo said she updated parents and staff on the shift to a play-based curriculum through meetings and weekly newsletters, not everyone felt fully informed.
Staff noticed changes in educational methods and philosophies after Eshoo became director.
According to a current teacher, Eshoo replaced some of the Center’s methods with more Waldorf methods than had been used in the past. Waldorf is an alternative educational philosophy.
The change “was so quick, so fast, that your head was spinning... because these were things that we were taught in college and that we’ve been developing the appropriate practice for years—that all a the sudden wasn’t quite what was in the vision,” said the current teacher at the Center.
Some parents were also aware of the new methods.
“A lot of the staff and the leader herself are affiliated with the Waldorf School. There’s nothing wrong with Waldorf, but it’s a very specific educational philosophy that is not at all in the mainstream,” said Laura McCandlish, whose son attended the Center from August 2012 until April 2013, in a phone interview with the Orient. “They’re not saying that they’re a Waldorf School, but in all intents and purposes they are...So either become a Waldorf school or don’t. It would help parents to know what they’re signing up for. I think teachers too.”
Eshoo said she feels differently. “We absolutely do not use the Waldorf approach,” she said.
“I have noticed in the young toddler room, which is the room that our children are in, that it’s a play-based curriculum, and all that means is that they will take the best ideas from Montessori, Waldorf...there doesn’t seem to be any strict adherence to any single philosophy,” said Allison Cooper, an assistant professor of romance languages at the College whose twins have attended the Center since June 2013.
Cooper is a member of the parents advisory committee made up of representatives from each classroom that meet monthly with Eshoo. Cooper is very happy with her children’s experience at the Center and said she was surprised by the negative comments on the original Orient article.
“I saw the comments...and they were a real surprise to me because they did not remotely reflect our experience at the Children’s Center,” said Cooper.
Although Eshoo says that the Center is a place open to all children, even those with behavioral problems, McCandlish believes her family was pushed out.
“If your kid was any kind of outlier in terms of behavior, like too physical, or too passive and quiet, like if your kid did not conform to [the] ideal, they really did not make you feel like it was a place for [your child],” said McCandlish. “It made all the parents feel bad. We just felt like it was a very top down approach. And basically our hours [at the Center] were cut in half. We were told we could bring him only for a half a day but still pay the same rate.”
Eshoo said that tuition rates cannot change within a contracted year.
McCandlish’s son now attends the Little Schoolhouse in Maine, where she said a few other Bowdoin families send their children. She said her son is much happier there.
“We’ve since moved to another daycare in Brunswick and our child is thriving. The teachers worked with us to resolve all development challenges,” McCandlish said. “I just feel like I wish we had been there last year because then we would have avoided all this.”
Jackie Sartoris, whose son attended the Center from 2009 to 2013, had a similar experience. She said she reluctantly pulled her four-year-old son from the Center after she was routinely asked to pick her son up early because he was not remaining still and silent during nap time.
“Our interactions with the Center for the last several months of 2013 left our family feeling judged rather than welcomed, and we strongly felt that neither our concerns nor our generally good-natured child were valued by the director,” wrote Sartoris in an email to the Orient.
Natasha Goldman—a research associate and lecturer in the art history department—switched her son to Family Focus, another childcare option in Brunswick in 2013, after the Center denied her request to change his lunch seat because he wasn’t eating his meals.
“Many families are very happy [at the Bowdoin Children’s Center],” Goldman said in an email to the Orient. “It just wasn’t the right fit for our child any longer.”
During this academic year, one family has withdrawn its child from the Center. Of the 45 families with children in the Center, 33 have an affiliation with Bowdoin, while 12 are community families. Last year, there were also 33 Bowdoin families at the Center. This has been the average since 2006, according to Longley
Eshoo stressed the fact that she has an “open door” for any parent or staff member who wishes to share a concern about the Center with her.
Of the 17 staff members working at the Center before Gould left, four remain. One current teacher at the Center estimated that nine of the 13 who left did so because of the shift in directors.
“The changes were too quick, too fast, too much and it was too hard to work that way,” said the current teacher. “I stayed because, I think, I believe in what I do, I love what I do and...I’m very proud to be Bowdoin College affiliated.”
Longley stressed that turnover statistics can be deceiving, and said that according to HR, five of the 13 staff members who left did so under the interim director or had planned their departures before Eshoo’s arrival.
“[Bowdoin] has a lot of employees, we have turnover in every department and turnover results from a lot of different things,” she said.
Many employees leave to take another job, move to another state, or go to graduate school, according to Longley. She urged people to be wary of making the assumption that higher turnover rates are a direct indication of a poorly run Center.
Laura Toma, an associate professor of computer science who had two children enrolled in the Center from 2010 to the spring of 2013, said that the staff turnover was one of the main reasons she decided to move them to a different school.
“Every few weeks or so, we got an email through the parent grapevine that some teacher left and that was quite disconcerting,” said Toma. “I don’t know anything specifically, but that told me that teachers weren’t happy.”
Stephenson, a teacher and the former interim director, would not comment directly on the changes that have occurred since Eshoo took over.
“I can, having gone through four different directors, say there’s change every time new staff arrive or a new director arrives,” Stephenson said. “Change is good. It helps you see new philosophies, draw information from other staff. New staff, new directors bring new ideas and new energy.”
Stephenson would not comment on specific staff members at the Center, past or present.
Hazlett was not surprised about turnover that took place as the directorship changed hands. She expected to see similar results, regardless of whether Eshoo or another candidate filled the role.
“When there’s a change at the top it also provides for other people to stop and think: Does this provide me an opportunity to assess? Do I want to keep doing what I’ve been doing X number of years?” said Hazlett.
When asked about reasons for staff turnover, Eshoo said she would only talk about the program and its philosophy.
Currently, there is one position open for an educator at the Center for the upcoming school year and a few openings for casuals, who substitute for staff members that are sick or on vacation.
Vance, who went to HR after speaking with Hazlett and Stephenson about the blocked fire exits, believes he would have been fired for speaking up, had he not been planning to retire three months later. Two former employees said that they were insufficiently supported by HR.
“They assured me [the snow issue] would be taken care of and they had no idea this was happening,” Vance said in a phone interview with the Orient. “HR doesn’t really protect employees, they’re just for the administration.”
Director of Human Resources Tama Spoerri declined to comment for this article and stated that HR never comments publicly about personnel matters.
“I think, if you talk to teachers that are there, you’re not going to get the truth,” said Vance.
The Orient contacted four current teachers, of whom two were willing to speak. The other two did not respond to interview requests. One Bowdoin staff member with a child at the Center was unwilling to talk because she feared that her comment would be used against her child. One former teacher was unwilling to speak to the Orient because she was traumatized by her experience.
“I wanted to say something for this article because I know that families with children still at the Center who are unhappy really can’t speak up comfortably. When somebody has your child, they have your whole heart,” Sartoris said. “Hopefully, some good can come from sharing our experience. The Center has been an essential asset for Bowdoin families and the community, and it needs to be again. “
According to Longley, the Center was accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) on July 31, 2008, which was valid until July 31, 2013. This accreditation is voluntary. After a site visit in early 2011, the Center was told the infant nap room would need a number of changes before the Center could renew its accreditation in 2013. Gould said that when she left Bowdoin in October 2011, a decision had not been made about whether or not to fix the infant nap room and renew accreditation.
After Gould left and Hazlett created a search committee to look for a new director, the Center requested to postpone renewal of its accreditation for one year passed its “valid until date.” That would provide the new director with a year to adjust to the Center and ensure the infant napping room was fixed before spearheading the renewal process.
“It’s a really intense process and I wasn’t going to ask the acting director who was also serving as a teacher to take on this monumental task. So we did ask for a postponement so we could get the new director on board,” said Hazlett. “I did know we had to make a decision about the infant room and that played into whether we were going to continue with accreditation or not.”
The Center could have renewed accreditation during the first half of 2013, but instead the College decided to take advantage of a policy that allows the Center a year of non-accreditation while going through the renewal process, rather than the full, initial accreditation process. As of July 31, 2013, the Center is technically not accredited, but its accreditation has not been denied or revoked. According to Longley, as of April 1, 2014, the NAEYC received the Center’s renewal materials and Longley is confident renewal will be granted before July 31.
According to Longley, the Center is currently licensed as a Child Care Facility by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.