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Citing low enrollment and untenable costs, the Early Childhood Center at St. Catherine University in St. Paul is closing May 24 after 93 years.

Some parents say the Feb. 15 announcement of the program's end caught them off-guard and left them scrambling to find alternative care for their kids. And some question whether the university did enough to find alternatives that would allow them to stave off closure.

"I got the news like the other parents, a mid- to late-morning email on a Thursday," said parent Claire Repp, whose daughter June, now 4, started there in fall 2022. "It just came as a gigantic shock. There was no heads-up, no discussion. No feedback. No warning signs. It just struck me as very odd and unusual and not in line with the university's values."

Sarah Voigt, a St. Catherine University spokeswoman, said university officials share parents' disappointment at the longstanding center's demise. But the university has watched enrollment decline as costs increased over the past several years, she said.

"It's not a surprise, given the things we have seen in local news and national trends."

The center's enrollment of 19 students is down from an average of 30 before the pandemic, Voigt said. Changes in state funding also made it hard to balance the books, Voigt said. A grant that the center once could use to offset operating losses was replaced by one that supports teacher salaries, but cannot be used elsewhere.

"This is not a decision we wanted to make," Voigt said. "We appreciate the families who are disappointed."

Lisa Walker, a Montessori teacher who left the program last year, said the decision to close the center was not a surprise to her.

Enrollment has been inconsistent in recent years, she said. "Historically, there has been a trend of smaller Montessori and quality early childhood programs disappearing, and the industry moving towards larger, more corporate-type settings."

While Walker said she understands "the difficulty of these decisions," the value of smaller, child-centered programs deserves creative solutions. The Early Childhood Center's "smallness within the beautiful St. Kate's campus made it a gem in the community," Walker said.

Parent Jim Johns, who has had three child care centers close while his children attended over the past few years, said he was initially angry at university officials for not doing more to avoid such a monumental decision. On Tuesday, he said, his emotions had cooled somewhat. Still, he questioned whether the university could have done more to head off closure.

"This feels like a very rushed business decision," he said. "There hasn't been transparency about what they've done. Did they advertise?"

Like many families, Johns said he and his wife are scrambling to find convenient and affordable alternatives for their 2½-year-old daughter Elyse. Three months isn't nearly enough time to find places with openings for the summer as well as next fall, he said.

The St. Catherine University program was founded in 1931 by Sister Ann Harvey of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. In 1955, Harvey, a professor of education at St. Kate's, traveled to study Montessori methodology in Italy. When Harvey returned, the university began integrating Montessori methods into its teacher preparation programs — and in the Early Childhood Center. For decades, the Early Childhood Center was staffed by nuns and was used to teach St. Kate's students how to educate young children. Voigt said the center is no longer part of the curriculum.

According to the university's website, Harvey also worked closely with the Minnesota Department of Education to help the state develop criteria for early childhood licensure. She died in 1980.

Repp was a student at the Early Childhood Center in the early 1990s, "when they still had sisters in the classrooms." She said she understands the financial realities facing the center. But she wonders why university officials didn't tap into a passionate and knowledgeable cadre of parents for help in finding solutions.

"They could have started a dialogue with parents about this in the fall. They could have found ideas. I think they would have found a community willing to work with them."