The Petite Elite

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Zoe Zalesak spends some time on the Oriental rug in the infant room. The center accepts children as young as 6 weeks.

In a brown-brick building here, around the corner from a Circuit City and across the street from a Sam's Club warehouse store, sits what some say is a paradise for the sandbox set.

Just past sunrise, parents begin to pull up in Mercedes sport-utility vehicles and Toyota minivans. They walk their children past an off-duty police officer and step into a glass-enclosed foyer. Here, they use a touch-screen computer to enter the personal code assigned to their child. This registers the child for the day at Crème de la Crème and clicks open the front door. Inside, a receptionist sits ensconced in a burgundy leather swivel chair behind an ornate desk. Along one wall of the reception area, 20 color monitors display images captured by videocameras placed in nearly every room of the center.

Just past sunrise, parents begin to pull up in Mercedes sport-utility vehicles and Toyota minivans.

A nearby gas fireplace is lit in the fall and winter "more for ambience than heat," says Cathy Clark, the executive director at this southern Denver child-care center. A love seat, chair, and ottoman form a cozy seating area in front of the fireplace. Framed photographs of children and the center's staff sit on an end table and on the mantle, which is held up by two white ceramic teddy bears.

Walking into a Crème de la Crème is more like walking into an upscale hotel than a day-care center. And that's OK with Bruce Karpas, the president and chief executive officer of Denver-based Crème de la Crème Inc. He doesn't even like the term "day care." "That's like calling college 'student care,' " he says.

In fact, tuition at the center rivals the cost of a private college. Full-time infant care is $1,190 a month, or $14,280 a year, falling just a few hundred dollars shy of the average yearly cost of a private, four-year college.

Max Bryant, left, and Zachary Brundage confer after pulling out of the tricycle garage. The center offers age-specific playgrounds.

Toddler care is $100 less a month. Crème charges $890 a month for 3- to 5-year- olds. In the Denver area, the average yearly cost of center care for a 12-month-old is just under $5,100 a year, according to a December 1998 Children's Defense Fund report.

The Crème center here and others like it are part of a trend toward pricey day-care centers--so-called Ivy League preschools--that are opening in well-to-do suburban areas nationwide. Karpas says such centers are exactly what parents are looking for. He maintains that in addition to high-end amenities that appeal to busy parents, Crème is providing high-quality care. And, he says, parents are more than willing to pay the price.

Take Sylvia Palms, for example. The single African-American mother is a vice president at US West, a telecommunications company in nearby Englewood, Colo. She writes out hefty checks each month to Crème and says the cost is well worth it. "I was looking for a level of professionalism," she says of her search for care for her 22-month-old daughter, Royal. "I went and toured [the facility], and Royal was in and registered the next day."

Palms says she was taken with the center's attention to diversity, pointing out that dolls at Crème have varying skin tones and that she noticed an African-American woman on the cover of one of the books children use.

"It's the mind-set-- meaning that these people are thinking out of the box," she says, adding that other centers she looked at "had not incorporated diversity of cultures, and that was disturbing."

The extras at Crème make up for the center's higher price, Palms says. "I have [to provide] no materials or supplies. That alone is a $200-a-month savings." In addition to supplying diapers, wipes, snacks, and meals, Crème washes the sheets and blankets the children use at nap time rather than sending them home to be cleaned.

And the center parks a cart filled with healthful foods near the door so that children can grab a snack for the ride home. "Every parent in America knows that when you pick up your child, your child is hungry," Palms says. "My quality time with my daughter has increased because of that traffic treat."

In the roughly three months since she moved Royal from a Montessori school to Crème, Palms says, her daughter has changed dramatically. "I thought I had a reclusive daughter," she says, but "she's socializing. She's laughing. She's very joyful. She's a different person."

Palms is so taken with the program that she's willing to fork over money to send her future niece or nephew to Crème. "My sister moved to Chicago and is having a baby. I told her I would send her the money to send her child to the Crème there."

But the Crème centers are not without their critics. The centers' curriculum is based on the controversial idea that children should move from activity to activity every 30 minutes to encourage stimulation and prevent boredom. The children also regularly use computers and an interactive television studio, features that some education experts say are unnecessary and even harmful.

The centers themselves have a bit of a Disney feel with constant music in the hallways and Victorian-style facades on specialty classrooms.

Karpas says he's giving parents what they want and points out that his centers all have waiting lists. In recent years, he says, parents have become increasingly savvy about the earliest education of their children. They've all read about the numerous recent studies that point to the first five years of a child's life as the critical ones for intellectual development, he says.

Roger Neugebauer, the publisher of Childcare Information Exchange, a magazine focusing on the child-care industry, agrees that Karpas and Crème have a potential market in every metropolitian area. The current trend, Neugebauer says, is "for parents universally to be much more focused on the quality of care their child receives. Parents are aware that the education aspect is just as important as the caring."

Alexa Hamilton tries out one of the center's computers.

Crème centers offer a lot to dazzle children as well as parents. Just beyond the reception area, a jungle-theme mural lines the path to the Coconut Theater, an area for children's performances. The walls are covered in faux bamboo, and oversized stuffed jungle animals hang from the rafters. Alongside the theater runs an indoor stream--stocked with koi goldfish--that trickles past silk greenery and fake trees.

Over the stream, through the woods, and under a skylight 32 feet above the floor sits a series of specialty classrooms that resemble a miniature Victorian town. A train runs through the eaves over the computer lab, and a wooden cat lazes on top of the sign for the foreign-language classroom--or, in Crème-speak, the bibliothèque--where children 3 and older get French lessons.

In keeping with the center's French theme, the phones are answered with a perky "Bonjour, Crème de la Crème," the after-school class is named "après school," and a storage closet is labeled "objets trouvès."

The Victorian villagescape includes the center's store, T. Bear & Co., which sells toys, games, and the uniforms that children wear while at the center. Staff members will also pick out and wrap gifts for parents. "Just tell them how much you want to spend, and it will be ready for you to pick up at the end of the day," Clark says. Across the hall is Victoria's Shortcuts, where children can get their hair cut for $15 during the day.

Next door is the math room, adjacent to the interactive-television studio. Inside, Steve Crankshaw is videotaping 4-year-old Carly, who is wearing a navy-blue cotton knit Crème de la Crème jumper. The children, from the toddlers on up, wear uniforms Monday through Thursday, with Friday being designated as a casual day of sorts. Most of the center's staff members also wear uniforms.

In the studio, Carly sits at a pint-sized replica of a news studio and talks about a stuffed fish she is holding. "He lives in the water," she says, looking into the camera. But the children watching, each of whom will have a turn in front of the camera, are quick to lose interest. One little girl asks if she can go play; she gives a big yawn when her request is denied. Two boys start wrestling, and Crankshaw gently reminds them to show their manners.

The words generosity, loyalty, patience, honesty, courage, and respect are painted on the wall bordering the ceiling in the adjoining classroom. When it's time to watch their tape, the children stare, rapt at their own images in the color monitors above the seating area. One little boy says to Carly, "I like your laugh." Carly thanks him, grinning broadly.

One of the most luxurious aspects of the center is a scaled-down water park fashioned after an old mine. Children slide down the gully washer or run under the sprinklers on treated material that resembles wood but won't cause splinters, and they can use the park every day, weather permitting, for 30 minutes.

Kevin Spies, left, and Steven Konitshek test the flow at the center's water park.

In the dance studio, Scott Liebler's enthusiasm and an "Adventurerobics" cassette tape lead a class of six 3-year-olds down an imaginary ski slope. One straggler, wearing a red top and navy-blue sweatpants emblazoned with "I'm a Crème Kid" on the rear, stops to check her look in one of the mirrored walls behind the ballet barre, then runs back to the join the class. By then, the children have turned into a pack of foxes. When the tape prompts, they all land flat on their backs on a tumbling mat laid out on the hardwood floor, put their feet up in the air, and pretend to fly with their legs.

The exercises, though disguised in pretend play, work specific muscles and are not unlike those found in a typical adult workout. At the end of the 30-minute session, the sound of the class chanting, "I love myself and you, too," grows louder and louder until the youngsters are gleefully shouting.

Behind the 22,000-square-foot facility, enclosed in an 8-foot-high stockade fence, is a scaled-down soccer field, a basketball court, a biking track complete with a tricycle garage, a picnic pavilion, a little theater, and an enormous plastic pirate ship. There is also a separate outdoor playground for toddlers and even one for infants, where large padded blocks can be arranged as obstacles for adventurous crawlers to conquer.

Infants in the center, beginning as young as 6 weeks, are divided according to developmental level: those who cannot yet sit on their own; those who can sit but not crawl; those who can crawl or move about by holding onto furniture and other objects; and those who can walk on their own. At 23 months, infants move into the 2-year-old room.

The first Crème de la Crème was built by husband and wife Don and Roberta Babb in Houston 18 years ago. Two years later, a group in Atlanta bought franchise rights and has since opened five centers in that area.

In 1996, Bob Russell, a Denver real estate developer, made a deal with the Babbs to take the concept nationwide. While seeking investment money, he approached Karpas, a New York City-bred corporate lawyer and a founder and former president of Pay Per View Television. ''I took one look at the concept and said, 'Bob, I don't want to invest in this, I want to run it,' " Karpas says.

"What I was enamored with was how different this was, and that I really could say ... that we are making a difference, that we are changing the way child care is perceived, that we are changing children's lives," Karpas says.

Since he jumped on board in early 1997, Crème centers have popped up in Plano, Texas; Denver; Chicago; and most recently, Leewood, Kan., a suburb of Kansas City. Another is scheduled to open in the Dallas suburb of Colleyville early next year.

The company is in negotiations to raise the $25 million it would take to build five more centers next year. And Karpas is sure it will make a profit. "The competition isn't meeting the demand," he says. "I am a firm believer in something really simple called value. Customers pay for value."

Those customers primarily come in two forms, says Jillian Pitt, the director of marketing for Crème de la Crème Inc. One is the stay-at-home mother "looking for socialization and enrichment outside the home," and the other is the dual-income professional couple "looking for an option other than typical child care or preschool," she says. And if Crème can raise the bar for the quality of child care available to all parents, Pitt argues, then the whole field will benefit.

Scott Liebler's movement class provides children with exercises disguised as play.

"It's nice to see that someone is out there challenging others about what we might do to meet the needs of the children," says Richard Clifford, a co-director of the National Center for Early Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And, he says, "it's not unreasonable to think that it is going to cost as much to provide high-quality infant and child care as it does to provide for higher education, but right now we're not spending anywhere near that amount of money." Clifford suggests that more government aid is needed to help with the costs of child care, similar to the resources available for higher education.

But he stresses the importance of how the money is spent. "The higher the proportion of money you spend on staff, the higher your quality is likely to be," Clifford says.

Crème starts its full-time teachers at between $10 and $12 an hour, depending on education and experience, Clark says.

While still above the norm of just under $7 an hour, Clifford maintains that the teacher compensation Crème offers is still far below what it should be. "Those salaries are still quite low, and if we compare it to teacher salaries in public schools," he says, "$20,000 [a year] is less than a beginning teacher makes for working less than 10 months a year for fewer hours a day."

And Clifford says he has concerns about the class-rotation program on which Crème's curriculum is founded. "You can't run children like an assembly line," he warns. "You want children to have a lot of control and opportunity to make choices themselves."

Jane M. Healy, an educational psychologist and consultant and the author of the books Failure to Connect and Your Child's Growing Mind, agrees. She says that sometimes 3-year-olds will pour the same sand in the same cup over and over. "There is something about that activity that the brain needs to learn that day," she says.

Healy believes that such activity could be teaching principles that underlie science, physics, and even calculus. "If you interrupt and drag her out of the sandbox and take her to French, you are closing off that brain's opportunity to learn. Maybe French lessons are not the most appropriate thing for that child at that time," she says.

Healy adds that some of the eye-catching features offered by Crème are unnecessary: "[Young children] don't need computers. They don't need a water park. They need blocks and sand and loving people who talk to them in a relaxed and unpressured setting, and it doesn't need to cost that much."

Among the factors essential to high-quality child care is the way the adults in a child's life relate to each other and to the child, says Mark Ginsberg, the executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, based in Washington.

"The essence of the interaction between the adult teacher and caregiver and the child frames the nature of the quality," he says.

The NAEYC uses 10 criteria, among them staff qualifications, administration, and physical environment, in accrediting child-care centers.

But Ginsberg cautions that not all programs and centers are alike. "The fact that one program may look different from another doesn't necessarily mean that one is of poor quality or one is of better quality," he says.

Though some may criticize the cost of attending a Crème center, its curriculum, or even the centers' somewhat flashy appearance, Karpas stands firm behind the company.

‘We are providing what should be provided, and we are charging what it costs to provide it, and not every parent can afford it. But you know what? Not every parent can afford Harvard.’

Bruce Karpas,
President and Chief Executive,
Crème de la Crème

"We are providing what should be provided, and we are charging what it costs to provide it, and not every parent can afford it," he says. "But you know what? Not every parent can afford Harvard."

Karpas says that eventually the company would like to offer scholarships for lower-income familes and even build a chain of scaled-down centers. "I don't need to put a tennis court and water park in every Crème, and I can still do better [than what is currently available]," he says. "There is a 'Crème Lite' out there which will be more affordable, and we will do it."

Karpas says his centers offer the best early education in part because his staff is better equipped to teach.

Generally, a day-care center is set up so that teachers are responsible for chores such as cleaning up after the children and setting up for lunch. "Who is interacting with the children? The teacher can't do that if they are expected to be doing housekeeping chores all day," Karpas says. "What do we do? We have a full-time housekeeping staff that does all those chores so the teachers can teach."

Crème employs a chef and an assistant to work in the kitchen preparing children's meals and snacks and delivering them to the classrooms. Around the corner from the kitchen is a lounge where teachers can spend their lunch breaks while aides watch over their classes.

Karpas adds that too many expectations are piled onto preschool teachers. "And we wonder why we have teacher turnover in this country. It's absurd."

For now, the 4-year-olds in Loma Anderson's class aren't really concerned with teacher turnover, high expectations, or tuition costs. They are more concerned with playing dress up and chasing each other around the room.

Kristin playfully pushes Christina, who then runs into a wall and falls over in perfectly exaggerated 4-year-old style. Kristin falls on top of her, and in a fit of giggles and a mess of sheer blue cotton and white lace, they roll over the oriental rug that adorns their classroom floor.

Vol. 19, Issue 3, Pages 24-29

Published in Print: September 22, 1999, as The Petite Elite
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