The Petite Elite

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Zoe Zalesak is ready for her close-up in the infant room. The center accepts children as young as 6 weeks.

In a brown brick building in Denver, 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 into a glass-enclosed foyer. Here, they pause at a touch-screen computer and enter their child's personal code. This registers the tot for the day and opens the front door to Crème de la Crème.

Inside, a receptionist sits ensconced in a burgundy leather swivel chair behind an ornate desk. Along one wall of the lobby, 20 color video monitors flash images from nearly every room of the building. A love seat, chair, and ottoman form a cozy area in front of a gas fireplace. Framed photographs of children and the center's staff sit on the mantle, which is supported by two white ceramic teddy bears.

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

Crème de la Crème has the look and feel of an upscale hotel, not a day-care center. And that's by design, says Bruce Karpas, president and chief executive officer of Denver-based Crème de la Crème Inc., which operates similar facilities in a handful of cities around the country. Karpas doesn't even like the term "day care." "That's like calling college 'student care,' " he says.

Indeed, Karpas sees Crème de la Crème as the preschool equivalent of a top-notch college, so it's hardly surprising that the program comes with a college-size tuition. Full-time infant care at the Denver center is $1,190 a month, or $14,280 a year. Toddler care is $100 a month less. And parents of 3- to 5-year-olds pay $890 a month. By comparison, the average monthly cost of center care for a 12-month-old in the Denver area last year was just under $425.

Max Bryant (in the car) and Zachary Brundage consider taking the scenic route after pulling out of the tricycle garage. They've got lots of space in which to roam--the Denver center boasts 22,000 square feet of stimulation for kids, including a scaled-down soccer field, a basketball court, a picnic pavillion, a theater, and an enormous plastic pirate ship.

Crème isn't the only care provider targeting the country club crowd, nouveau riche yuppies, and other well-heeled parents. So-called Ivy League preschools are popping up in well-to-do suburbs nationwide, all of them promising top-quality care with high-end amenities. Parents have grown savvy about the importance of early education, Karpas explains. They've read about the studies that point to a child's first five years as the make-or-break period for intellectual development. So when moms and dads see what Crème has to offer, Karpas says, they are more than willing to pony up.

Roger Neugebauer, publisher of the magazine Childcare Information Exchange, believes there's a potential market for Crème de la Crème in every metropolitan area. Parents today are more concerned about the quality of care their child receives, Neugebauer says. And they "are aware that the education aspect is just as important as the caring."

Sylvia Palms, a single African American mother, is one such parent. Palms' long child-care search for her 22-month-old daughter, Royal, ended when she walked into the Denver Crème center. "I went and toured the facility, and Royal was in and registered the next day," says Palms, a vice president at US West, a telecommunications company based in nearby Englewood. The extras Crème offers are worth the high price tag, Palms says. In addition to supplying diapers, wipes, and meals, Crème 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."

Just three months after enrolling Royal in Crème, Palms noticed dramatic changes. "I thought I had a reclusive daughter," she says. "But now 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 pick up the tab for a relative. "My sister moved to Chicago and is having a baby," she says. "I told her I would send her the money to send her child to the Crème there."

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

Denver's Crème center is nothing short of dazzling. Just beyond the reception area, a jungle-theme mural lines the path to the Coconut Theater, a staging area for performances. The walls are covered in faux bamboo, and oversized stuffed animals hang from rafters. An indoor stream stocked with koi goldfish trickles along one side of the theater, past silk greenery and fake trees.

Over the stream and through the woods is a mock Victorian town, with a classroom behind each elaborate storefront. There's a computer lab, math room, and library-bibliothèque in Crème-speak-where children 3 and older get French lessons.

The villagescape also includes a real store, T. Bear & Co., which sells toys and games as well as the uniforms children wear every day but Friday, "casual day." If parents ask, staff members will shop for them at T. Bear and even gift-wrap purchases. "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," says Cathy Clark, the center's executive director.

Across the hall is Victoria's Shortcuts, where children can get their hair cut for $15. Not far from that is the center's interactive-television studio. Inside, staff member Steve Crankshaw videotapes a handful of children, including 4-year-old Carly, who talks about a stuffed fish she is holding. "He lives in the water," she says, looking into the camera. Later, as they watch the tape, the children sit spellbound by their likenesses on the color monitors above them.

Behind the 22,000-square-foot indoor facility is an outdoor play area, complete with enormous plastic pirate ship, scaled-down soccer field, basketball court, biking track, and picnic pavilion. There's a separate outdoor playground for toddlers and even one for infants, where adventurous crawlers can navigate large padded blocks.

Certainly one of the most popular-and extravagant-features of the center is a water park fashioned after an old mine. Children can slide down a flume, play with water toys, and run under sprinklers on treated material that resembles wood but won't cause splinters. They can use the park every day, weather permitting, but only for 30 minutes. That's the strict time limit for any single Crème activity or class.

The first Crème de la Crème was built 18 years ago in Houston by husband-and-wife team Don and Roberta Babb. Two years later, an Atlanta group bought franchise rights from the couple 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," Karpas recalls, "and said, 'Bob, I don't want to invest in this. I want to run it.' "

Karpas was taken with Crème's approach. "I was enamored with 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."

Since Karpas took over the company in early 1997, Crème centers have opened in Plano, Texas; Denver; Chicago; and most recently, Leawood, Kansas, near Kansas City. Another will open in the Dallas suburb of Colleyville early next year. All the centers in the franchise have waiting lists.

The company is now trying to raise $25 million to build five more centers. Karpas believes he's sitting on a gold mine. "The competition isn't meeting the demand," he says. "I am a firm believer in something really simple called value. Customers pay for value."

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

Though parents are lining up to enroll their children at Crème centers, child-learning experts aren't sold on its benefits. "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. "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." More government aid could boost the quality of care for all children, he contends.

But whatever the cost of a program, Clifford says that how a day-care center spends its money is a sign of its quality. "The higher the proportion of money you spend on staff," he says, "the higher your quality is likely to be." Crème starts its full-time teachers at between $10 and $12 an hour, depending on education and experience. That tops the national norm of just under $7 an hour, but Clifford maintains that it is less than it should be. "Those salaries are still quite low," he says.

Although Clifford praises much about Crème, he objects to its schedule, which requires children to change activities every 30 minutes. Crème officials say the policy promotes stimulation and prevents boredom, but Clifford worries it's too restrictive. "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 Healy, an educational psychologist and the author of the books Failure to Connect and Your Child's Growing Mind, agrees. Healy says that a 3-year- old will sometimes spend long periods of time pouring sand in and out of a cup. Though this may seem like mindless play, the child shouldn't be pulled away, she insists. "There is something about that activity that the brain needs to learn that day," she says. "If you interrupt and drag her out of the sandbox and take her to French, you are closing off the brain's opportunity to learn. Maybe French lessons are not the most appropriate thing for that child at that time."

Alexa Hamilton likes what she sees on one of the center's computers.

Healy believes that many of Crème's features are frivolous. "Young children don't need computers; they don't need a water park," she says. "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."

Karpas has heard the criticisms before-the high tuition, the forced 30-minute rotations, the extravagant setting and offerings-but he stands behind his program. "We are providing what should be provided, and we are charging what it costs to provide it," he says. "Not every parent can afford it. But you know what? Not every parent can afford Harvard."

‘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

Karpas eventually hopes to offer scholarships. He is even considering a chain of scaled-down centers-"Crème Lite"-without water parks or other elaborate features. Facilities aren't everything, he explains. Staffing is equally important. At most day-care centers, he points out, teachers are responsible for everything from instruction and cleaning up to serving lunch and changing diapers. "Who is interacting with the children?" he asks. "The teachers can't do that if they are expected to be doing housekeeping chores all day. What do we do? We have a full-time housekeeping staff that does all those chores so the teachers can teach."

Of course, the 4-year-olds in Loma Anderson's class aren't at all concerned about who will clean up after them or pay their tuition. At the moment, they're dressing 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 all over the oriental rug on the classroom floor.

Vol. 11, Issue 4, Pages 31-35

Published in Print: January 1, 2000, as The Petite Elite
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