continued Low pay, Oliver believed, was at the root of the staffing problems at the Door of Hope Children's Learning Center. So she petitioned her bosses to offer higher salaries to attract new teachers. "They were only paying teacher's aides $7.50 an hour and teachers $9.00 an hour."
Her bosses, Oliver says, "agreed the new teachers coming in would get $13.75. So a lot of teachers I'd worked with over the years wanted to know about the program. So people started coming over, and they wanted to see the center, and I told them from A to Z what my plans were on turning this facility around and what it was going to take."
One of the new teachers Oliver hired was Felicia Sloan-Hackett, who had worked at Children's Hospital for ten and a half years. "I needed a change," says the 37-year-old Lemon Grove resident, now unemployed, "and [in the Salvation Army day care] I saw a school that needed help. I had worked with Alisa, and I believed in her as a director. As a professional person, she is dynamic. She gets things done. When she says she is going to do something, she does it. She went in there, and she said we are going to change this school around, we are going to make it better, not just for the children, but for the families. That is what her intentions were, and that is what she did."
The move from Children's to Salvation Army involved a pay raise for Sloan-Hackett, from $11.72 an hour to $13.75. Mark Galindo, another former coworker of Oliver's, moved to Salvation Army from Children's, where he'd been for ten years. "When Alisa received the directorship over at the Salvation Army," Galindo recalls, "she called and said, 'Hey, would you be interested?' So I walked over, saw the program, saw the potential, and knew that it would make a huge difference with the families there and with the program. So myself and a few others went over."
Though this hiring was going on, Salvation Army officials weren't sure they wanted to keep the Children's Learning Center open. "Within weeks of her hiring," O'Brien recalls, "I told Alisa that I called licensing to close the program. We had a staffing problem, which generated some licensing fines. And before we could fix the problem, they would fine us again. And the fines were simply coming faster than we could solve the problem. And I called [Community Care Licensing] and said, 'Clearly you have no intention of having us fixing this problem. Your intent is to run us out of business. So we will close the center.' And I did that on a Friday afternoon. By Monday, Alisa was on the phone, 'Please don't close this center. I can turn this around,' she pleaded with me. 'I can hire staff that will do a quality program, and it will be a viable program.' I said, 'How long will it take you to do that?' She said, 'Give me four weeks.' Well, four weeks would have been the end of June, and the center stayed open through the end of September, and we simply didn't have the numbers of kids that made a viable center."
Oliver and some of the teachers she hired believe the Salvation Army delayed closing the Children's Learning Center because they wanted to let the new staff clean up the licensing mess at the center before closing it down. "Every time licensing would walk into that building prior to me coming on," Oliver says, "they were fined. But from March 17 all the way to my last day, they were never fined, not one more dollar. Because I made sure that we were all in ratio, I made sure that the children were being supervised, I made sure that there was adequate qualified staff in there. And we started having higher levels of quality care."
Center files at Community Care Licensing support her claim.
"In hindsight," says Galindo, who's still looking for another job, "I see that the Salvation Army needed to have our team go in there and clean it up for them -- clean up the program and leave it on a good note, so when they reopen it, they'll have a clean bill of health. Otherwise, licensing might have withheld the license or the Salvation Army would have had a bruise on their record and [when they reopened] they would have to tell the new families, 'Well, this is our record.' "
O'Brien says the Salvation Army acted in good faith when it gave Oliver and her staff a chance to turn the place around. "We had no intention of closing the center," he says, "but it simply became unreasonable to maintain a center that required a significant subsidy in a facility that simply wasn't attractive to people. And so we made a decision [to close it], and that was a hard decision."
O'Brien continues, "The center was licensed for 120 kids. When I got here five years ago, we were averaging between 50 and 60 in attendance in the center. As the years progressed, the numbers kept shrinking. What might have been 62 became 55, and then it was down to 50. And when we decided to close the center, Alisa claimed that there were 46 or 47 enrolled in the center. Well, 10 of those kids were children of employees at the center and were getting a free ride.... So the truth of the matter is, she had 37 paying customers. And that is as low as, or lower than, any number that we have had since I have been here. I have to have income from 80 kids to pay the bills there."