published Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Siskin Children's Institute to close East Brainerd learning center

Johnathan Castro, 2, uses a touch screen to help him understand emotions in the ESCALATE Class at Siskin Children's Institute. His teacher, Molly Sloan, watches his actions as the screen changes faces.
Johnathan Castro, 2, uses a touch screen to help him understand emotions in the ESCALATE Class at Siskin Children's Institute. His teacher, Molly Sloan, watches his actions as the screen changes faces.
Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

ABOUT SISKIN CHILDREN'S INSTITUTE

• Founded: 1950

• Mission: To support quality of life for children of all abilities through education, research, health care and advocacy

• Website: www.siskin.org

• Contact: 423-648-1700

Source: Siskin Children's Institute

Chattanooga's Siskin Children's Institute is shuttering one of its two early learning centers, citing dwindling numbers of special-needs children at the center and a shifting tide in early education for children with disabilities.

The East Brainerd Early Learning Center on Gunbarrel Road will close on May 30, Siskin Children's Institute president and CEO John Farrimond said. Almost 120 children between the ages of six weeks and five years attend the center, which employs 39 people.

Siskin will make room for as many of the East Brainerd children as possible at its downtown Carter Street location, which is already close to capacity, said Linda McReynolds, director of development and communications. First priority will be given to the handful of children with special needs, she added.

"It is very difficult for them to find placement, so we are going to be able to accommodate them," she said. "And we're working to see what other spaces we have for typically developing children, as well."

Of the 116 children who attend the East Brainerd center, just 12 have been diagnosed with special needs -- that's strikingly different from Siskin Children's Institute's downtown location, where about 40 percent of the center's 140 children have special needs.

At East Brainerd, the 12 special-needs children would have dropped to 9 next year -- nowhere near the desirable 40-60 ratio, which helps create the inclusive environment that Siskin strives for, McReynolds said.

"As we looked at our service population, we only had nine," she said. "And not that those nine aren't important, they are. And the other children's experiences are equally important. But we just don't have the demand for the services for the special-needs children out here."

That decreasing demand is driven in part by a shift in the Tennessee Early Intervention System. The state-sponsored program helps pay for care for special-needs children before age two. In past years, the program often paid for as much as five-day-a-week placements at providers such as Siskin Children's Institute, but that has been cut to just five hours a week, McReynolds said.

At the same time, the Hamilton County Schools system, which contracts with Siskin to provide care for special needs kids ages three and above, started to provide services in-house instead of sending kids to community-based providers like Siskin, Farrimond said.

"Programatically, the environment has changed," he said. "With [the early intervention program] making a move to home-based instead of center-based, and the public schools referring less kids with special needs to organizations like ours, that's a programmatic change that has to be looked at."

Closing the center is the best way to ensure Siskin Children's Institute can continue to serve East Brainerd, Farrimond said. The money previously spent on the center will be reallocated to new community-based programs, he said.

Siskin Children's Institute spent about $4.8 million on both of its early learning centers in 2011 while only earning $1.8 million in revenue from the centers, according to the latest nonprofit disclosures filed with the IRS. Farrimond declined to say how much money the organization will free up by closing the East Brainerd center, but said the amount is well into six figures.

The end numbers will depend on several factors, he added, including whether Siskin sells the East Brainerd building, what new programs it launches and how many of the center's 39 staffers stay with Siskin. All of that is still in flux, Farrimond said, although he hopes to keep as many employees on the payroll as possible by transitioning them to roles downtown.

The closing was recommended by a task force of board members who worked for more than two months on the decision, Farrimond said. It was announced three months early to give parents ample time to find new arrangements for their kids, McReynolds said.

There are 31 childcare providers in the 37421 ZIP code, she added, so parents should be able to find replacement care.

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com.

about Shelly Bradbury...

Shelly Bradbury covers police and crime in Chattanooga and Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She's been with the paper since 2012, working first as an intern and then as a business reporter. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint ...

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