Volume 76, Number 50 | May 9 -15, 2007

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

Parents from 9th St. Day Care Center met last week to strategize on how to keep the center open.

Daycare’s closing would be dark day for local kids

By Julie Shapiro

Last month’s Community Board 3 full board meeting brought out the neighborhood’s youngest constituents.

Toddlers and their parents showed up in force to protest the announced closing of Henry Street Settlement’s 9th St. Day Care Center. Over 60 children attend the low-to-moderate-income daycare, which will close for good on June 15 unless the city’s Administration for Children’s Services intervenes.

C.B. 3 unanimously resolved that A.C.S. provide a one-year extension of the daycare center, and also requested that local elected officials help parents explore other daycare options.

“It’s a great daycare program,” said Pia Simpson, a C.B. 3 member whose foster son Antwan, 2, attends the daycare. “It’s not just a babysitter,” she said. “This daycare really gets into making sure kids are active participants in their education.”

The 28-year-old daycare’s devotion to each child is especially valued by parents, who rallied to the center’s defense.

“As people in the community became more aware, the outrage started to grow,” Simpson said.

More than 50 daycare staff members, parents and children attended the April 25 C.B. 3 meeting. Strollers cluttered the aisles and toddlers sipped juice boxes, squirmed in their seats and called out to each other. Many in the audience wore paper signs around their necks, suspended with yarn. Each sign had a photo of a child and read “Save our E. 9th St. Daycare Center.”

During the meeting’s public session, a small, dark-haired girl who attends the daycare’s kindergarten program took the microphone.

“Please don’t close the school,” she said. “They teach me the alphabet and how to count backwards from 50.”

Five mothers spoke, and each drew resounding applause and cheers.

“You’re ripping apart a family,” one mother said. “Our children matter.”

Simpson attributes the intensity of the reaction to the importance of the daycare in the lives of working families.

“There’s a real possibility that if the closing happens, we’ll be left in a lurch,” Simpson said. “We’re not just sending our kids off and watching soap operas all day — this is working people.”

Sharman Stein, A.C.S. director of communications, does not anticipate that parents will have trouble finding new places for their children. There are more than 200 vacancies at daycare centers in C.B. 3’s district, she said.

“Parents should be able to find an adequate and high-quality option for their children,” Stein said. “We’ll also work with parents to help them make a suitable choice.”

A.C.S. gave parents a list of nearby daycare centers and promised some form of voucher if parents do not find a vacancy. However, parents say that not all of these daycare centers are of the same quality and convenience, and many only accept toilet-trained children.

The daycare center first came into jeopardy several years ago, when it was flagged for declining enrollment, said Verona Middleton-Jeter, executive director of Henry Street Settlement, a nonprofit social services organization. Henry Street’s contract with A.C.S. ends this June, which set a timeline for the decision, Middleton-Jeter said.

“I would have loved to have seen [the enrollment numbers] turn around,” Middleton-Jeter said. However, when the numbers did not improve, Henry Street met with A.C.S. in November 2006 to say that they would not renew the contract. Henry Street also runs two other daycare centers.

“We’re not closing it because we don’t think we’re running a good program,” Middleton-Jeter said. “There’s a trend [of declining enrollment] that’s not just Henry Street.”

Stein confirmed the trend, and said C.B. 3’s daycare centers have vacancies, while other neighborhoods have long waitlists.

“We are trying to realign system to meet the need,” Stein said. “We can’t have unused space when we have have demand…. We want to fill to capacity.”

The 9th St. Day Care currently has 62 children enrolled, out of a possible 75, Simpson said.

Parents are upset that no one notified them of the daycare’s closure until March 30 of this year.

“There was no reason to alarm parents [far in advance],” Henry Street’s Middleton-Jeter said. “We didn’t have a plan in November.”

Still, Middleton-Jeter doesn’t blame the parents for being upset.

“I believe if I were one of the parents I’d be right out there doing exactly what they’re doing,” she said.

Parents are also angry that A.C.S. is not allowing a new sponsor to take Henry Street Settlement’s place. According to Simpson, two potential sponsors have stepped forward: Loisaida, Inc., and the Y.W.C.A.

The community board resolution states that A.C.S. should extend the Henry Street contract by one year, assign an A.C.S. worker to help parents with the transition, provide a more detailed list of daycare providers and clarify the vouchers that will be available.

The community board resolution also encourages elected officials to work with parents and A.C.S. to find placements for children. Several elected officials pledged support for the parents at the C.B. 3 meeting, including City Councilmember Alan Gerson and representatives of Borough President Scott Stringer and City Councilmember Rosie Mendez.

“It is a real tragedy to lose this beloved daycare center, and it is made more painful when parents only have two months to find a program that can fill the void,” Stringer said later, in a statement. “Every child must have somewhere to go by the time the 9th St. Day Care Center closes its doors.”

Parents, staff members and an education consultant have written to these elected officials, testifying to the daycare center’s caring teachers and stimulating activities. They also describe the children’s deep attachment to the center.

As parent Laetitia Minier wrote, “If the daycare closes, it will not only be the closing of a daycare but the separation of a family.”

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