S.F. parents dismayed by closure of day care in compound built by George Lucas


Every morning Lisa Dralla walks her 2-year-old son, Alex, from their home in San Francisco’s Marina District into the Presidio, past the lagoon with the ducks, past Yoda Fountainand into Bright Horizons, a pre-school and day care center she said has 70 kids enrolled and a waiting list.

“It is a dream scenario,” said Dralla who saw that dream turn into a nightmare last month when she received a letter from Bright Horizons alerting her and other parents that the school would be closing after 18 years.

The school is closing after an apparent lease dispute with Skywalker Properties, a company with a portfolio that includes Skywalker Ranch — the West Marin film compound built by George Lucas — and Letterman Digital Arts Center, where the preschool sits.

The Presidio Trust is the property owner and Letterman is the master tenant with an 80-year lease on the site of the old Army hospital, just inside the Lombard Gate. It built out the complex of buildings and the park, and Skywalker Properties manages it, leasing space to a variety of tenants including Bright Horizons, a Massachusetts for-profit company that is the largest provider of employee-sponsored child care in the country, according to an online description.

“Unfortunately, Skywalker Properties has made the difficult decision to re-purpose the center space effective June 30th, 2023,” read the letter from Bright Horizons. “We share in your disappointment regarding this decision, yet we are pleased to share that all teachers and families may be accommodated at nearby Bright Horizons centers.”

A statement from the corporate office of Bright Horizons said, “We share in the community’s disappointment about the center closing. We will work closely to ensure a smooth transition for all of our families to nearby Bright Horizon centers.”

But in an email, Connie Wethington, spokesperson for Skywalker, told the Chronicle, “Skywalker Properties offered Bright Horizons the option to extend their lease at a below market rate. They chose not to renew their lease.”

Bright Horizons boasts 50 locations within a 30-mile radius of San Francisco. There are seven other locations in San Francisco. But the closure of the school’s Presidio campus could create headaches for parents.

“We’re devastated. This is one of few centers that is for both infants and toddlers,” said Anastasia Novozhilova, who was collecting her daughter Ada, 1, on Wednesday evening.

Many parents drop their kids off at the Letterman location on the way to jobs at Industrial Light and Magic, other nearby Lucas properties or the Disney Museum.

Dralla started her son at Bright Horizons when he was 4 months old and he has gone from 8 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. five days a week ever since. Change would be hard on him but probably harder on his parents, she said.

“My entire experience at Bright Horizons has been nothing but positive,” she said. “The community and the education has surpassed my expectations.”

Parents at Bright Horizons can expect to pay $3,700 a month for the youngest kids, with prices lowering slightly the older the kids get, according to Dralla, who is expecting another child in May is on the wait list. She hopes to have them both together when she returns to her full-time job in tech in the fall.

Last week, Bright Horizons held a parents’ meeting online, at which it was reiterated that the decision to close the facility was made by Skywalker,not Bright Horizons, said Dralla, who attended. Skywalker disputes this explanation by Bright Horizons. The transfer process to another Bright Horizons facility was explained to parents, with each family asked to send a list of three preferred alternative centers.

“They make no guarantee,” said Dralla. “They are doing what they can, but for a lot of families like our own, it goes from being a walking-distance to a drive, and none of the others (Bright Horizon campuses) are in the park, with the outdoor space.”

Indoor space, too. To reach Bright Horizons, students pass through a lobby shared by the plush private screening room. There is a full-length Darth Vader on display. There is no signage outside or inside for Bright Horizons. A security guard declined to allow a Chronicle reporter access.

At the end of the day, parents arrive by foot and by bicycle to get their kids. According to parent Camille Gaspard, teachers at Bright Horizons get subsidized housing in the Presidio and that will end. So will the collegiality that comes from hanging around the Yoda fountain with the other parents.

“The school is the community, and the city makes it hard,” said Gaspard who is considering leaving the Marina for Mill Valley.

Supervisor Catherine Stefani, whose district includes the Letterman complex said she “intends to do all I can to help the families and staff who may be affected,” she said in a statement for the Chronicle. “I have already contacted city departments and our partners at the Presidio to determine what resources are available and what options we have to ensure we minimize impacts as much as possible.”

But it is already late in the game, for next year. Novozhilova is 30 weeks pregnant with her second child and is now “scrambling to apply for pre-schools,” she said. “but there are waiting lists even for tours.”

Dralla has been offered a spot in a preschool within walking distance of her Marina home, which is a priority. Her happy years years with her daughter at Bright Horizons appear to be over.

“We feel like if you have to drive we are just not going to get to know the other families and be involved in the school,” she said.

Fellow parent Manon Lopez is stuck in-between with her daughter Faye, 4. She is one year shy of entering kindergarten. Lopez described the attraction of Bright horizon as “convenience, long hours and nice teachers,” she said. “Now I have to find another place for just one year.”

Sam Whiting (he/him) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @SamWhitingSF

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