Parents stunned by Long Run learning center's closure announcement
After years of declining enrollment and funding, the owners of Long Run Children's Learning Center in White Oak said it will close on Aug. 15.
“Long Run has been an integral part of the lives and education of hundreds of McKeesport area families over the years,” center board chairperson Cindy Popovich said. “Unfortunately, we have had to face the economics of maintaining a highly specialized school with increasingly dwindling revenue sources.”
That decision has parents scrambling to find comparable programs with open enrollment.
Kelly Vay of North Versailles Township, whose 4-year-old daughter was enrolled in Long Run's Bridge to Kindergarten program, feared not being able to find the sort of “structured, positive school environment” found at Long Run.
“The type of education that Long Run provided to such young kids isn't offered everywhere,” Vay said. “The time, effort and tours that led us to choose Long Run in the first place are being crammed into a finite timeframe, almost like we're being forced to make a snap decision on something as valuable as education.”
The decision to close came at the July meeting of the Long Run board, after more than two years of what current owner InVision Human Services described as “intense evaluation and creative solution-seeking.”
A spokesperson for InVision said the process preceded InVision's acquisition of Long Run in the spring of 2013.
“This was not a quick decision,” InVision's Marjie Foster said. “It was a painful decision. The woman who is the founder of Long Run, Bertha Mae Chaplin, she is understandably distressed by this. She has been very gracious about it.”
Chaplin founded the Pre-School for Retarded Children at old First Presbyterian Church in downtown McKeesport. The program moved to Central Presbyterian (now McKeesport Presbyterian) Church along Versailles Avenue in 1968. In 1973 it became the McKeesport Pre-School for Exceptional Children, a name still found on the Allegheny County real estate website.
However, after the loss of funding through the years for specialized education programs, Foster said less than five percent of the about 150 students enrolled last fall could be described as disabled.
Still, it was a sudden decision for parents and guardians of Long Run enrollees, who were to receive letters sent out on Wednesday.
Vay said she is disappointed and fearful of how her daughter will react.
“Kids are so resilient, and I think our fear on how they're going to react is far greater than how they're actually going to react,” Vay said. “They are resilient, but it's still such a sensitive time. They have friendships, and they enjoy going back to that school five days a week. I'd hate to make a bad decision that will affect their entire educational career.”
The decision came between the end of summer activities and what would have been the start of fall programs.
As of Friday afternoon, Long Run's website still touted enrollments for fall Toddler Groups, Pre-K Counts, Preschool, and Bridge to Kindergarten programs. There is a link on that website to a newly rebuilt McKeesport Area School District site.
“(MASD) is working with representatives of the (Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare) Office of Child Development and Early Learning to discuss the options available to continue providing valuable early childhood programs,” district spokeswoman Kristen Davis said. “Parents will be notified in a subsequent communication of the steps required to transition their child's Pre-K education.”
Parents said they would have appreciated advanced warning, even if it wasn't an official notice.
“They could have given families an option to keep their children enrolled, knowing that the school was at risk of closing so that we had time to find other schools for our kids,” Vay said.
Understanding the nonprofit school's financial plight, Vertullo and other parents said they wanted to know that the troubles were serious, rather than being given a false sense of hope through ongoing fundraising efforts and the positive attitudes of administration and staff.
InVision is a self-described “family of companies that provide services and products designed to transform the lives of people who are experiencing significant life challenges.”
When InVision acquired Long Run, the center already had decided as of October 2012 to close its day care operation.
“As we continue to look for ways to diversify, we are very pleased to be able to expand our services into preschool programming,” InVision founder and president/CEO Ruth E. Siegfried said in March 2013. “The fit with Long Run could not have been better, and their addition will help us ensure continuity and quality across the broadening spectrum of human service.”
On Friday, Siegfried said, “Our goal was to support Long Run in every way we could while the future of the organization was assessed. We are proud to have had an opportunity to work with its leadership, staff, and the students and their families, and sad to see the program close.”
Part of the problem may have been Long Run's facility, opened in January 1998 after a capital campaign raised more than $1.4 million to fund the construction. Among those involved in the campaign was Hartley King, chairman of King's Family Restaurants whose offices are across the street from Long Run.
“Long Run was built with a huge amount of private support and it was built on a beautiful and large property,” Foster said. “When you look at other early childhood facilities, they don't have the kind of overhead that Long Run has. It is simply less expensive to go to other early childhood facilities.”
According to the Allegheny County real estate website, Long Run has owned the 2.25-acre facility since April 22, 1993. It now is assessed at $1,343,300 — $225,000 for the land and $1,118,300 for the building.
Foster's assessment took in McKeesport's overall economic picture as well. She referred to the area “experiencing some loss in businesses,” which meant in turn that “private donations are not happening like they used to.”
The InVision spokeswoman would not rule out Long Run's eventual reopening.
“There is nothing off the table at this point,” Foster said.
Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1967, or firstname.lastname@example.org.