Chattanooga parents scramble as Siskin Children’s Institute plans to close early learning centers

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Siskin Children’s Institute, located at 1101 Carter Street, is seen on August 3, 2023.
Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Siskin Children’s Institute, located at 1101 Carter Street, is seen on August 3, 2023.

Hundreds of Chattanooga-area parents are scrambling to find child care after Siskin Children's Institute officials announced plans to permanently close the early learning centers at 1101 Carter St. and 225 Lookout St. — formerly known as Little Miss Mag Early Learning Center — effective Sept. 29.

Officials cited rising costs and trouble recruiting staff as factors that lead to the "difficult decision" to close the centers after more than 70 years serving area children and their families, according to a news release from officials.

Siskin Children's Institute serves more than 5,000 children annually, many of whom have developmental disabilities such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and autism spectrum disorders.

The early learning centers served typically developing children and a small percentage of children with disabilities. Of the children enrolled in the early learning centers, 26 had been diagnosed with special needs, according to the release.

Amanda Elliott, a spokesperson for Siskin Children's Institute, declined to say how many children are currently enrolled in the centers.

Provider data from the Tennessee Department of Human Services show the Carter Street early learning center is licensed to serve up to 190 children, while the Lookout Street center has a 124-child capacity.

The news release states the cost of operating the two child care centers is jeopardizing other programs within Siskin's mission to care for children with developmental disabilities. Those programs include the institute's medical care and therapy services, such as developmental pediatrics, speech pathology, occupational therapy, feeding therapy, behavior psychology and applied behavior analysis for children diagnosed with autism.

"Siskin Children's Institute has been committed to providing high quality, inclusive early education to children for many years, so the decision to close our learning centers was quite difficult and one we did not reach easily," President and CEO Derek Bullard said in the news release. "Since the pandemic, the costs of operating the centers have increased and our enrollment never fully recovered."

(READ MORE: Siskin CEO looks back on first year, shares vision for future)

As a condition of its tax-exempt status as a nonprofit group, Siskin Children's Institute must report certain financial data to the IRS and make it public.

Those reports show the number of children benefiting from the early learning center program increased from 148 enrollees in the fiscal year ending June 2019 compared to 247 enrollees in the fiscal year ending June 2022. Expenses for the centers were also lower in the 2022 fiscal year compared to the 2019 fiscal year, according to the reports.

To send a child to one of the learning centers, families pay $260 per week for children between 6 weeks and 15 months old and $240 per week for toddlers through age 5, according to the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

Siskin Children's Institute by the numbers

Pre-pandemic:

— Total revenue: $6,485,732.

— Total expenses: $7,987,469.

— Employee salaries and benefits: $6,017,188.

— Contributions and grants: $1,632,115.

— Early learning center expenses: $3,005,361.

— Early learning center revenue: $2,960,601 (148 enrollees)

Source: IRS Form 990 filing for fiscal year ending June 2019

Last year:

— Total revenue: $11,101,792.

— Total expenses: $14,586,607.

— Employee salaries and benefits: $11,249,807.

— Contributions and grants: $2,756,607.

— Early learning center expenses: $2,878,574.

— ELC revenue: $2,982,135 (247 enrollees).

Source: IRS Form 990 filing from for fiscal year ending June 2022

Nonprofit financial data for the 2023 fiscal year won't become public for some time, but Siskin officials said the early learning centers would have lost more than $1.5 million this year without COVID-19 stimulus funds through the American Rescue Plan.

"We arrived at this decision by weighing the cost of operating the program against our impact, the quality of the program and our ability to fulfill our core mission," said Bullard, who took over as CEO in 2018.

IRS reporting shows Bullard's reportable compensation in fiscal year 2022 was $247,253 with an estimated $15,399 additional compensation.

Since December 2021, the former Little Miss Mag center on Lookout Street has received two compliance violations from the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

One violation came after a child left the playground area and went inside the building without supervision in May 2023, according to a report from the state Department of Human Services. The other violation occurred in April 2022 after a lead staff person used an "inappropriate tone" toward a child, according to the state.


'Out of luck'

Daniel Waddell, whose 9-month-old daughter currently attends the Lookout Street center, said in a phone interview that local day cares are now being inundated with calls from parents who are looking for child care in response to the announcement.

Since learning about the decision early Thursday, Waddell said he and his wife had called up to seven different facilities by mid-morning.

"Everyone that we've talked to said that they were getting the same calls from everybody that was enrolled," he said.

With current waitlists at area child care facilities ranging from 16 months to two years, Waddell said it's "extremely disappointing" that officials gave parents less than two months' notice with no transition plan in place.

"Everybody's just gonna be out of luck, I guess, until some of these waitlists get whittled down," Waddell said.

Siskin officials said the rationale behind the announcement's timing was an effort to maintain staffing levels.

"Part of our plan includes providing severance and additional compensation for staff who work through the transition. However, we also know we may potentially lose staff during the transition period who will seek new opportunities," officials said in the news release. "Additionally, recruiting new staff for a program that is closing would be extremely difficult, thus providing additional notice or a longer transition is not practical."

(READ MORE: Siskin Children's Institute expands medical, therapy services to Nashville)


'Honor the legacy'

Waddell's oldest daughter began attending the early learning center on Lookout Street in 2019. At the time, he said Siskin's reputation was strong and the classrooms were full of children.

Now that his youngest daughter attends the center, he said he's noticed more turnover among care providers and classrooms that sit dark and empty.

In the news release, Bullard said the institute's goal is to help identify resources for parents needing child care and other services in the coming weeks.

Spokesperson Elliott said via phone that she could not share information about the plan to assist parents beyond what is in the news release.

Valerie Rutledge, Siskin Children's Institute Board of Directors chair, said in the release that serving children with special needs will continue to be the institute's mission.

"Although the decision to close our early learning centers was incredibly difficult, it will ultimately allow us to increase our impact for children with special needs throughout the region, ensuring that we honor the legacy of the Siskin family whose vision created the institute," she said.

Officials emphasized closing of the early learning centers will not affect Siskin's other programs, including the medical and therapy services in Nashville and throughout the Chattanooga region.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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