UTC to takeover Siskin Children’s Institute early learning center at Little Miss Mag

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Little Miss Mag Early Learning Center, at 225 Lookout St., is seen on Aug. 3.

Siskin Children's Institute has inked a deal to transfer ownership and operations of its Little Miss Mag Early Learning Center to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, preserving 124 child care slots that were set to close Sept. 29.

Derek Bullard, CEO of Siskin Children's Institute, said UTC will assume operations of the Little Miss Mag center, 225 Lookout St., effective Oct. 2.

UTC and Siskin will work together to ensure children enrolled at both its Carter Street Early Learning Center and Little Miss Mag center continue to have their child care needs met at Little Miss Mag if they choose, Bullard said.

As of Friday, 60 children were enrolled across both the Siskin sites compared to 129 enrollees prior to the closure announcement Aug. 3, according to Bullard.

UTC operates two facilities that serve children from six weeks of age through pre-K: one at Brown Academy on the UTC campus and another at Battle Academy downtown. Those facilities have a combined 137 enrollees as of Friday, according to a university official.

"They provide stability and a high-quality child care experience that is kind of unmatched in the community, so I think it's a win-win," Bullard said in a phone interview, noting in a joint news release from both organizations that "UTC has extensive experience successfully operating nationally accredited early learning centers."

Most of Siskin's early learning center staff will also have an opportunity to continue working under UTC after completing the onboarding process, he said.

Chattanooga-area parents and child care providers have been scrambling to find child care solutions since early August, when Siskin officials said they were closing the two centers due to rising costs and trouble recruiting staff. Siskin Children's Institute is far from alone in its struggles.

(READ MORE: Move on from COVID? Child care disruptions continue)

Federal funding that has supported child care facilities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic is set to expire Sept. 30, creating what industry experts have dubbed the "child care cliff" by which millions of children and families are expected to lose child care as facilities across the nation shutter services.

Without intervention, a report from the Century Foundation estimates that 70,000 child care programs in the U.S. will close, including 1,199 in Tennessee.

Even before the pandemic, many day cares across the nation were grappling with a workforce crisis. A 2020 report from Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, found that child care wages fell near the bottom percentile of all occupations.

Current waitlists at Chattanooga-area child care facilities can range from 16 months to two years.

Brent Goldberg, UTC's vice chancellor for finance and administration, said in a phone interview that UTC's centers prioritize enrollment for children of veterans and active duty military families, followed by UTC faculty, staff or students, but also serve the broader community.

"We realize that affordable child care is something that is very much needed," he said. There were more than 100 children on the waitlist at UTC's two current child care centers as of Friday, Goldberg said.

(READ MORE: New early child care program hopes to address worker shortage in Chattanooga, Hamilton County)

Families pay between $863 and $1,028 per month to send a child to UTC for full-time child care, with infants costing the most and older children costing the least. Siskin charged between $960 and $1,040 per month, according to the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

Current Siskin families will get first priority at Little Miss Mag once it's absorbed by UTC, and then remaining slots can be used to help offload UTC's waitlist, Goldberg said.

Several factors allow UTC to operate Little Miss Mag at a lower cost than Siskin, he said.

UTC child care centers are operated by the College of Health, Education and Professional Studies, with experiential learning at the centers incorporated into the curriculum for college students.

Because all UTC staff are state employees, they're afforded better compensation and benefits than the typical child care worker, including education benefits for the employee and discounts for dependents, Goldberg said.

"We're able to staff, and that's what has been an issue for a lot of child care centers: They can't find staff, therefore, they have less capacity, which means less revenue," Goldberg said.

In addition, because UTC is a large organization, he said the university is able to leverage contracts and other relationships to increase purchasing power for supplies and facility maintenance.

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

Siskin Children's Institute is a nonprofit organization that primarily provides medical and therapeutic services to children with developmental disabilities, such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and autism spectrum disorders.

The early learning centers — which offer inclusive day care for both typically developing children and a small percentage of children with disabilities — comprise a fraction of Siksin's overall business but cost the organization more than $1 million annually to maintain, Bullard said.

Officials said that closing the centers will allow Siskin to better focus on its mission of serving children with special needs throughout the region.

Some of the fine details are still being ironed out, but Bullard said that Siskin plans to collaborate with UTC in order to serve more children with special needs through the center.

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