Originally created 11/04/99

Child care gets high-class sheen



DENVER -- At 8:10 on a chilly morning, Jackson Longhofer hustles out of the car and enters the building where he will spend the next several hours. He passes the uniformed guard, who holds open the front door, crosses over a bubbling brook stocked with fish, moves through the 32-foot-high vaulted interior with its Victorian-style shop fronts, passes the "bibliotheque," the Coconut Theater, the music room, the math room, the computer room and the TV station with its four clocks displaying times around the world.

Jackson is 4 years old.

He has just arrived at day care. Not just any day care, but Creme de la Creme, a child-centered wonderland that represents a new wave of child care for a generation of working parents concerned that their offspring aren't getting enough stimulation in plain vanilla settings.

Besides Denver, Creme de la Creme has built centers -- to the tune of $5 million each -- in suburban Dallas, Kansas City and Chicago.

A growing number of child-care centers call themselves "early childhood education" facilities, ladling on the extras for the most well-off of the nation's 13 million preschool children in day care. They have kid-size tennis courts, elaborate exercise areas that combine learning with play, foreign language classes for toddlers, reading readiness curricula for preschoolers, computer training for 2-year-olds, brain-boosting exercises for infants and more.

The movement is not without its detractors, who point out that expensive child care isn't necessarily best for the child. Pushing academics at pre-kindergarten children is "just a wrong concept," said Faith Wohl, president of the nonprofit Child Care Action Campaign. "This is the time when nurturing and conversation and learning to be with other people are far more important."

But that hasn't stopped child-care companies from hopping on the bandwagon.

"There's definitely a small niche -- a growing niche -- for parents who want the best and are willing to pay top dollar," said Roger Neugebauer, publisher of Child Care Information Exchange, an industry newsletter.

For Creme, that niche is unabashedly opulent. It charges $1,200 a month for an infant at its Denver center -- about double the rate at a nearby KinderCare -- and $900 to $1,000 for preschoolers.

Creme's four existing centers are alike: 20,000-square-foot buildings -- about 10 times the size of an average U.S. home -- packed with perks.

Along with the scaled-to-kid-size TV studio and theater, the center has a children's barbershop and a small gift store that sells the Creme uniform -- blue shorts and pants and red shirts emblazoned with the center's logo -- and last-minute birthday gifts for on-the-go parents.

Private tennis lessons are given on the outdoor court. There's a child-size basketball court, a small soccer field, an outdoor theater and a playground. Oh, and don't forget the small water park, a necessity on those hot summer days when running through a sprinkler seems, well, so gauche.

Calls to the center are answered by a perky "Bonjour, Creme de la Creme," and menus for petit dejeuner (breakfast) and dejeuner (lunch) scroll across computer screens scattered throughout the facility.

A uniformed guard is posted as a doorman during dropoff and pickup times, and a bank of 20 closed-circuit monitors in the front lobby displays activity beamed in from 40 surveillance cameras.

Creme de la Creme Chief Executive Bruce Karpas, a cofounder of Pay-Per-View TV, launched the business in 1997 with a real estate developer who had purchased franchise rights from the original Creme de la Creme, which opened in Houston 17 years ago. That facility and several in Atlanta with the same name remain privately owned.

Mr. Karpas, 43, is taking the concept nationwide. The company's fifth center is scheduled to open in another suburb of Dallas in May, and 50 centers are planned for opening over the next five years.

Creme pitches itself to professionals who want their child's every waking moment filled with learning.

Jackie Messa, a specialist in infectious diseases, placed her son, Seth Radman, now 14 months, in Creme after becoming displeased with her in-home child-care provider. "I want to come here," she said with a laugh.

Creme opens at 6:30 a.m. and, like most child-care centers, starts buzzing about 8:30. But unlike other centers, where children stay mostly in one setting, Creme children older than 2 switch classrooms every 30 minutes.

In the bibliotheque, or library, a group of 2-year-olds settles down to practice French. Teacher Stacy Chouinard holds up a drawing of an apple. "La pomme," she says, turning to one excited little boy. "Nicholas, do you see la pomme?"

Other 2-year-olds are in the computer room. Music teacher Kelsey Hill plays Bach and Brahms on the violin for another group of toddlers, who scamper around the room tooting on kazoos.

"They're too young to sit still," Ms. Hill says as she hands out drumsticks.

In one of three infant rooms, uniformed staff members record every detail of each baby's routine for a daily report to the parents.

Every 30 minutes, the older children put their hands on the shoulders of the child in front of them and "choo-choo" to their next class. A custom-designed soundtrack keeps them in step by playing classical selections, French children's songs and animal noises.

Moving children from room to room every half-hour concerns some educators, who say the constant interruptions could interfere with the children's ability to develop close relationships with their caregivers.

But parents like it. "It keeps them going," said airline pilot Frank McDonald, whose 2-year-old daughter, Cierra, started at Creme last month. "They don't get bored. ... The kids learn a lot."

The multitude of offerings boosts Creme's fees, giving the centers a certain cachet among parents. Mr. Karpas said he prices his centers at least $200 a month above the highest rate in each market he enters.

"We feel it's a tremendous value for $50 a week more," he said, but, "cutting right through it, it still is not cheap."