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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Live, Love, Laugh and Grow: University Child Care will expand in the new year

In one of the flowerbeds that soften the transition from the Friday Center’s asphalt parking lot to the cozy indoor space at the University Child Care Center, visitors are greeted with a series of signs that could be the center’s motto: Live, Love, Laugh and Grow.

And while the children inside do all these things, the center hasn’t been able to do much growing itself – until now.

Currently, the 10,500-square-foot facility can accommodate 120 children, from infants to 5-year-olds. In September, construction will begin on a new 1,900-square-foot permanent addition to the center, operated exclusively for UNC Hospitals employees and Carolina employees and students.

Teacher Zulaykha Clemons-Dunn watches as a youngster enjoys himself on the slide on the playground at the University Child Care Center.

The two classrooms, which are expected to open in January, will have room for another 36 preschool children, allowing the center to make a dent in its 200-plus waiting list and eliminate the current bottleneck in the classes for 2- and 3-year-olds.

The addition includes a covered walkway to connect to the main building and an expansion of the playground area.

“We’ve had a huge demand for so long. The wait is about 18 months on average,” said Jeanne Wakefield, the center’s executive director.

The center has been in operation since 1953, when it was Victory Village Daycare on South Columbia Street. Then, an institution-specific child care center was a novelty; now it’s a prime recruitment and retention tool for the University and hospital communities.

“I know of families who made employment decisions based on continuing here,” Wakefield said. “It’s a significant factor for families.”

Chancellor Holden Thorp made a strong case for the expansion at last month’s Board of Trustees meeting. “The expansion will help us meet the intense demand we have on campus,” he said. “It shows our commitment to help faculty and staff flourish.”

University Child Care meets the highest national standards. The center is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and has the highest rating – five stars – from the state. Its activities include art, music and gardening.

Joanna Carey Cleveland, an attorney in the Office of University Counsel, has two children at University Child Care, 3-year-old Jack and Susanna, who will turn 1 later this month. She also served as chair of the center’s board in 2010–11.

“My husband teaches elementary school, and he would tell you that many of the children he sees doing especially well have some connection to the University Child Care Center,” she said. “Every day, I feel wonderful my children are there. I am confident they are loved and supported by all the center teachers and staff.”

When Wakefield first floated the idea of an addition several years ago, she figured a modular unit would be the most affordable option. But by the time modifications like a ramp and improvements to the exterior were factored in, a permanent addition proved nearly as economical – and much homier.

The project, which will cost just over $300,000, will be funded by University Trust Funds and funding from UNC Hospitals’ reserve funds. Ongoing operating expenses will be covered by University Child Care Center tuition receipts. The trustees approved the design on May 24.

The center will hire five new staff members. Because of the investment by the University and UNC Hospitals, the per-child cost of operating the center will be lower so tuition won’t increase.

“It costs a little more than the run-of-the-mill daycare center, but it’s much less than the other five-star centers in the area,” said Mattias Jonsson, a member of the center’s board who works with database systems at the Cecil G. Sheps Center. He and his wife, Michele Jonsson Funk, an epidemiologist at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, have two children at the center, 5-year-old Liam and 3-year-old Ellie.

“It was our top choice because it seemed like a very nurturing place,” he said. “Choosing a daycare center is so important because your child spends almost more time at daycare than with you.”