Friday, May 15, 2009

UH plans to close Human Development Lab School

As somebody who is not only a parent of a child who attends the UH HDL, but also as somebody who attended the lab school myself when I was in preschool, I am extremely disappointed and more than a little angry about this decision:

More than 40 years after it opened as one of the city’s pioneering preschool programs, the Human Development Laboratory School is closing.

The University of Houston, which ran the lab school for toddlers and preschoolers as part of its College of Education, said it will close July 31.

The lab school does double duty, providing care based on the principles of developmental psychology and serving as a laboratory for students and faculty members studying early-childhood education.

It also is one of relatively few programs in Houston accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Parents of HDL students had feared that the College of Education was preparing to make this announcement. Rumors had been circulating for months, and by the time May rolled around there was concrete evidence - the fact that contracts had not been approved for HDLS staff for the upcoming academic year, or the fact that College of Education Dean Robert Wimpelberg had repeatedly refused requests to meet with the HDLS Parent Advisory Board to discuss the school's current and future status - that a closure was in the works. The PAB circulated an e-mail at the beginning of May warning about the possibility of closure; it even ended up being printed in the Daily Cougar. Of course, everybody's fears were realized when Wimpelberg announced to parents via e-mail on Wednesday afternoon that the school would cease operations on July 31st.

Wimpelberg - finally - met with parents Thursday night in a meeting that was reportedly (I did not attend but Lori did) ugly and unproductive. Wimpelberg indicated that the decision to close the lab school was his and was based on factors such as the school's financial situation (it is losing money) as well as the school's inability to attain some vaguely-defined "best-practice and research" standards set by the College of Education. This brings up a few questions:
  1. The HDLS is a program of a tax-exempt, state-supported institution, yet it charges tuition fees that are higher than many high-quality private preschools (at least, according to some research Lori undertook). Yet the HDLS is losing money - $100,000 a year, according to UH Provost John Antel in the Chronicle article, although the PAB claims to have documentation indicating that the actual losses are much smaller. Why? Are staff salaries too high? Is enrollment too low? Is it expected to be funded completely by childrens' tuition, or do College of Education students who use its facilities to complete their early childhood degree and certificate programs fund it as well (either through their class tuition or through student fees)?

  2. On that note, the PAB claims that they as well as HDLS staff had offered to help the school's financial situation by assisting with marketing efforts in an attempt to increase enrollment and by undertaking an alumni and parent giving campaign. Reportedly, these efforts were rejected by Dean Wimpelberg. Is this true? If so, why?

  3. According to the Chronicle article, Antel claimed that the HDLS "wasn’t a good fit with the research and training interests of faculty and graduate students at the College of Education." This statement is probably related to Wimpelberg's reference to "best-practice and research aspects not being met" in both his e-mail to parents as well as at last night's meeting, but the point is the same: the College of Education is claiming that its on-campus facility that has a 40-year history of success all of a sudden no longer works for the college's early childhood education degree and certificate programs.

    Um, Seriously? If that's really true, then why? Is it due to structural flaws within the school itself, or are Wimpelberg's "best practice and research" criteria simply too ambitious for, or too incompatible with, the current HDLS program?
In short, what's the real story here? I'm sure there's some history between the administration of the UH College of Education (which assumed control of the HDLS from the UH College of Technology in 2002) and the staff of the HDLS itself that is in play here, but I'm not privy to the details and, to be honest, it really doesn't matter. All that does matter is that, come August 1st, Kirby will no longer be able to attend the school that he enjoys so much.

And that brings up one last issue: the July 31st closure date. This is hugely inconvenient for us, because it really does not give us enough time to find another place for Kirby. Waiting lists for quality pre-school programs are months long, the admission deadlines for kindergarten programs at good area magnet schools have long since passed, and very few preschools of any type have programs that begin on August 1st anyway (most follow standard academic cycles and begin at the end of August). Some HDLS students will probably end up in the University of Houston's Child Care Center, which is run completely separately from the HDLS, but that is open only to children of current UH faculty, staff and students; even though we are alumni, Lori and I cannot send Kirby there. So now Lori and I have to spend the next two months trying to resolve this issue.

HDL parents are not giving up the fight to save the lab school. They've started a website - - and they plan to engage not only to Dean Wimpelberg and Provost Antel but also University of Houston President Renu Khator, the University of Houston Board of Regents and local elected officials. I can't say I'm optimistic that this will have any effect, but I am supportive of any efforts to save what by all accounts is a cherished Houston institution.

And finally, the biggest question of all: how does one explain all this to a four-year-old child?

The Houston Press's take is here.

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