Hundreds of children learn and play among pint-sized chairs, colorful posters and outdoor playgrounds every week at Baby Gator, the University of Florida’s Child Development and Research Center.
Soon, huge changes are coming to the wildly popular program. Baby Gator is gearing up to eliminate its chronically long wait list and is expected to more than double in capacity after an estimated $35 million expansion.
The three-part plan was announced at Thursday’s Board of Trustees meeting and its first phase approved.
Baby Gator is an on-campus daycare-to-pre-kindergarten school favored by parents who work or study at the University of Florida. It is widely seen as a perk for student parents and UF faculty with young children, and its waiting list is hundreds of families deep.
According to a presentation given by Jodi Gentry, vice president for UF Human Resources, the expansion aims to increase Baby Gator’s enrollment from its current 306 children to 766 in fiscal year 2024, which for UF runs from July 1, 2023, to June 30, 2024. That would make room for the over 300 students waiting for a program spot.
From 2012: Families show up in big numbers for Baby Gator field day
From 2012: Baby Gator expands to meet growing demand
Notably, it includes building expansions and a 4.5% annual increase to parent fees during fiscal years 2023-27. The increase will be the first since July 2015.
“The most important asset for all of us is our children,” said BOT member Anita Zucker. “This has become a critically important project, and I’m very much in favor of seeing this happen.”
Baby Gator history
Baby Gator has three locations: Lake Alice, with 130 children; Diamond Village, with 63 children; and Newell Drive Center, with 113 children.
Kids as young as 6 weeks and as old as 5 years are admitted, and while anyone in the community is welcome, priority is given to children with at least one parent or guardian associated with UF, including undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff.
Currently, Baby Gator charges parents between $150-$268 weekly for UF faculty and staff and $145-$220 weekly for students, depending on facility and the child’s age, said Director Stacy Ellis.
The 4.5% annual increase will not go above the local market rate for child care, Gentry told the board, in an effort to stay affordable for families and acknowledge the financial burden student parents face.
To help cover costs, Baby Gator offers federal grant funding for lower-income student parents. The Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) grant covers 60-100% of tuition, depending on factors like parent income.
That program began in October and will continue through Sept. 30, 2024, Ellis said. The director said she plans to reapply for the grant.
Gentry said the program is a university auxiliary, meaning it is supposed to financially support itself, primarily through the parent fees. But for big construction projects, some loan forgiveness and the tuition increase, it needs BOT approval.
Lauren Arce, a nurse with UF Health, Baby Gator mother and parent representative on the advisory board, said she believes the expansion plan will bring much-needed resources to a deserving and crucial program.
“It’s long overdue,” Arce said. “Most of us are very proud and very happy and very relieved.”
Fellow parent, UF faculty and former representative Emily Rine Butler agreed and said Baby Gator’s long wait list is brutal for the community. She was happy the BOT approved the first part of Gentry’s plan.
“It’s about damn time,” she said. “Those poor people have been working on a shoestring … They really need the resources.”
Baby Gator expansion will help meet community’s demand for child care
Hannah Vander Zanden, an assistant professor in the UF biology department, mother of two children in Baby Gator and parent representative on the advisory board, also said the expansion effort would help meet the community need for child care and education.
From her point of view, she said, Baby Gator is an amazing community resource with wonderful people who have had their hands tied, unable to make needed changes. But she did express some concerns and asked the BOT that future discussions touch not just on growth but care quality and experience.
In March, Vander Zanden said, Baby Gator announced to families that it could not offer the usual summer camp for about 50 VPK students because of understaffing.
“Due to insufficient teaching staff, my child and all other rising kindergarteners will be dismissed from the center next week, much earlier than anticipated, and forcing parents to seek temporary care options at a crucial time in their children’s educational transitions,” Vander Zanden said.
Ellis said the staffing issue is due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Normal turnover has left a need for new teachers, but the applicant pool has been limited. Ellis declined to say how many teachers Baby Gator is looking to hire but said good, qualified people are being hired as they apply.
“This year has been challenging for all industries, and child care is one of them,” she said. “We have had typical industry turnover. But then where we’re running into trouble, and this is sort of the issue nationwide, is having a robust applicant pool to draw from.”
According to Vander Zanden, one factor that may be limiting potential employee interest and contributing to current turnover is Baby Gator’s pay rate.
Ellis and Gentry said teachers, who work 40 hours a week, earn $11.50-$15.50 an hour depending on experience and credentials, along with UF benefits like free classes and a health care package.
They said pay is competitive with similar child care and education centers around town. But Vander Zanden said she’s heard that some employees have left for other jobs with higher pay.
Butler also said Baby Gator teachers deserve better pay for the great work and service they provide. Higher wages would then allow for more employee retention, she added.
The Sun emailed, called and messaged via social media multiple Baby Gator teachers over the past three months asking for their perspectives, but none replied.
Pay was not mentioned in Gentry’s BOT presentation because it does not require board approval for changes, she said.
But part of the plan includes specific funds for “workforce stabilization.” They will be used not just to hire more employees but to increase the amount of full-time, recurring and higher-paid jobs with more extensive benefits, called Teams positions, than other temporary or part-time OPS positions, Gentry said.
Here is a breakdown of Gentry’s proposal:
- UF would give $600,000 once to pay off Baby Gator’s housing loan.
- UF would allocate $475,000 annually from Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) federal money to Baby Gator for a couple years to help stabilize operations, including $125,000 directly for hires and increasing Teams positions.
- UF and Baby Gator would launch an estimated $35 million campaign to cover three expansion phases for the center, of which UF would pay approximately $5 million.
Phase one, estimated to cost $4 million, includes renovations and building expansion to the Lake Alice facility’s east and west sides during the upcoming fiscal year 2022. It would expand parking and allow 60 more children to receive care, according to the meeting agenda.
Phase two, which is not yet approved, includes a building expansion in fiscal year 2023 at the Diamond Village facility that would provide room for 100 more kids. It would happen at the same time parent fees first increase by 4.5%.
Phase three, which has not been approved yet and could change, includes construction of a new 70,000-square-foot facility called the “Early Childhood Collaborative.”
According to Gentry’s presentation files, the education and research collaborative building would provide space for about 300 children and be built in the current location of Maguire Village graduate student housing.
Maguire is part of a group of graduate student housing set to be eliminated as part of the UF 2020-30 Campus Master Plan. Master’s and doctoral students have objected to its removal, saying they cannot afford other housing, especially close to campus where they work and study.
Hosseini said after public comment from Vander Zanden and four graduate students who spoke on the need for affordable housing that the BOT is working on finding a graduate housing solution, possibly a replacement for Maguire or increased stipends.