With Governor Phil Murphy’s January’s signing of Senate Bill-3330/Assembly Bill 5066, Evesham Township School District’s (ETSD’s) Teddy Bear Academy can now start planning for its future.
The day care center, based in a wing of the Marlton Middle School building, will stay in operation at least through the three-year duration of a feasibility study approved by the state legislation, effectively ending an 18-month battle.
“Teddy Bear Academy will remain open, along with 15 other government facilities run by either school districts or colleges in the state of New Jersey, as part of what they’re calling a pilot program,” said Evesham Child Care (ECC) Director Leah Perlmutter.
“Basically, when a law is changed or a new law is put into place, a lot of times, a pilot program moves it along a little faster. This three-year study will determine what kind of effects the programs have in their communities and if these programs are effective for young children and families.”
Teddy Bear Academy opened in 2014 and has been under threat of closure since it was declared to be an “unauthorized activity” under state law by Administrative Law Judge Solomon A. Metzger. That 2018 ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed by Under the Sun Learning Center of Marlton.
Concerns also included Metzger’s ruling that ETSD’s Board of Education didn’t have the authority to open the day care program. According to Perlmutter, “Teddy Bear Academy operates under Evesham Child Care, which is a business of the Evesham School District.”
She added that ECC’s before- and after-school programs “have always operated” at all of the district’s elementary schools, but only for school-age children — an age gap that Teddy Bear Academy aimed to resolve by offering child care to children between six weeks and 5 years old.
“Six years ago, as an extension of ECC, we decided to not only offer child care for school-age children but also for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, and we called that Teddy Bear Academy,” Perlmutter said.
Since then, Perlmutter said that she and the Teddy Bear Academy staff have run the center with “a sense of family, where we know all the kids in this center, as well as their older siblings.”
Susanne Krivanek is among those parents who appreciate both the warmth of the day care center as well as its role in shaping her daughter’s future.
“They say it takes a tribe to raise a child and we are thankful for the nurturing community that Teddy Bear Academy provides,” she said. “Our child loves going to ‘school’ every day — we are confident that the environment is setting the right habits for her academic career and will minimize transition issues. And it’s great that our tuition money goes back into the school district.”
Perlmutter feels the Teddy Bear Academy’s dedication to both the families they serve and the day care center itself is what garnered such fervent support from the community when word of the potential closure broke.
“We had a meeting telling parents to start looking for other child care because we could be closing in 30 days,” she said. “It was an awful night, it was an awful meeting — but our parents surprised me so much. That evening, after the meeting, parents came up to me and said, ‘No, this can’t happen; we have to stop this.’”
Perlmutter said that a contingent including parents, grandparents and even community members with no ties to Teddy Bear Academy rallied around the center. Soon, a vocal “Save the Bears” campaign began lobbying for the school district’s day care center in an effort that spread from Marlton to the state capital.
“Family members, staff and even people in our community went up to Trenton and testified on our behalf at the hearings for the legislators’ vote,” said Perlmutter. “We also had a local rally, and we had a rally in Trenton.
“I believe, for them, it wasn’t just a day care center shutting down: It was something that people were willing to fight for, and I think everyone’s support really helped our legislators see that.”
Now that the future is more certain for Teddy Bear Academy, it will host an open house Saturday, March 28, from 10 a.m. to noon at Marlton Middle School. The event will also include registration for both the 2020-2021 school year as well as the TBA Summer Camp 2020.
“It’s so nice to finally be talking about the future of Teddy Bear Academy,” Perlmutter noted. “I just can’t thank our Teddy Bear Academy family and our extended family in the community enough for fighting for us.”