Day care centers find room to grow in city

As more families move back into the city, parents are finding a glaring lack of nationally owned child care services that are bountiful in the suburbs.

A check of the top five franchise or for-profit child care centers showed only two in Atlanta’s business districts: The Children’s Center at All Saints Church on West Peachtree Street and R. Kirk Landon Learning Center.

Both are owned by Bright Horizons Family Solutions of Watertown, Mass., and while open to the community, they are primarily used by employees of Bank of America, IBM, All Saints Church, Emory Midtown and Georgia Tech.

But such a dearth of urban national centers may be changing — thanks, in part, to an Acworth-based company.

Within the last year, two national day care centers have opened: the Primrose School of Midtown, last month, at Colony Square and the Goddard School, a year ago, at Piedmont Center in Buckhead.

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Both centers’ owners looked unsuccessfully for intown day care centers for their children and decided to open one instead.

“I grew up in Buckhead and live there,” said Kellen Stewart, owner of the Goddard School. “It was shocking to see how far behind Buckhead was on quality day care centers. Almost all were faith-based and most definitely did not hold up to the standards we wanted. There were one or two in the area that we liked but the programs certainly were not worth the price.”

Keri Stolz, who worked at Primrose, came to the same conclusion. Then a resident of East Atlanta, she and her husband, Carl, realized “it was unfair for us to want to live in the city, start a family and be forced to leave because of day care options. We decided to become franchisees and make Primrose come intown.”

It was a natural choice for Stolz, whose mother, Jo Kirchner, is Primrose president and CEO.

Marie W. Darstein, executive director of the National Child Care Association in Easley, S.C., called it an issue of supply and demand.

“Day care providers pop up where children are and where parents need help. It’s as simple as that,” she said. “The assumption has been that children are in the suburbs, not the cities. Working moms are everywhere.”

Bright Horizons’ business model is to open centers for corporations that want to offer on-site day care as an employee benefit. They operate 700 centers across the country, the majority of which are dedicated employer-sponsored. The company opened its first Atlanta center for Piedmont Hospital in 1990 (now closed) and runs seven centers specifically for large corporations or law firms downtown.

“We are seeing a trend overall for day care in urban downtown areas,” spokeswoman Bridget Perry said. “We’re finding that parents feel more comfortable being close to their children and don’t want to do the double commute and rush to make the day care center [closing] deadlines.”

The Midtown location is the prototype of future urban schools for Acworth-based Primrose Schools, which last year had 34,000 children in 212 schools in 15 states. (The Goddard Schools are operated by independent franchisees under a license agreement with Goddard Systems Inc. of King of Prussia, Pa.)

“Our business model was a standalone building on land in the suburbs, and it worked,” Primrose president Kirchner said.

“We are seeing a resurgence of young families going back to the city. We believe there are opportunities to open schools there. Five years ago I wouldn’t have said that. We intend to double our size in the next five years and about half of those schools will be in urban areas — maybe 80 to 100 schools. We have franchisees in Houston, Boston, Denver looking for locations.”

Overwhelmingly, child care options — from infant through pre-K — are run by churches, schools or a private proprietor. Of the approximately 110,000 day care centers in this country, Darstein estimates the largest 50 day care center owners combined account for about 30,000 centers.

With so many individual operators, the quality of care and educational services vary. National operators offer uniformed structured age-appropriate educational curriculums and care that many parents prefer.

Cassandra C. Streich, senior manager of communications for the High Museum of Art, looked at intown day care centers for her daughter, Hadley, now 4 1/2 months old.

“There weren’t a lot of centers we liked — and those had long waiting lists,” she said. “I was aware of Primrose’s mission and their educational platform. They’re doing things like finger painting and reading, things that I would be doing with her. Plus, I can see her at lunch.”

Setting up an urban day care center offers challenges not found in the suburbs such as location and security. Primrose converted an elevator from the parking deck for its dedicated use that opens directly into the school’s lobby or by using the key card at the school’s main entrance. Key cards are required to gain access to the main hallway where the classrooms are located. The school also paid for noise tests to help placate nearby condo owners who feared screaming children in the outside play areas.

The majority of students at the Goddard School, which has space for 112 children, and Primrose (capacity 190), live nearby with the rest having parents who work in the area.

Streich believes such nationally owned intown centers will find cities a fertile market.

“Every day I see new parents going on tours at Primrose,” she said. “ It’ll quickly become very popular. It’s so needed.”

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