New city childcare plan could radically reshape Bronx preschools

Childcare centers, like BronxWorks, could be forced to make alterations to their programs come 2011. Photo: Zach Schonbrun

Childcare centers, like BronxWorks, could be forced to make alterations to their programs come 2011. Photo: Zach Schonbrun

It was early in the afternoon, and the 15 preschool children in Room 4 at BronxWorks’s Learning Center had just finished naptime. Their instructor, Diane Semper, gathered the group in a semicircle on the navy blue rug in the back of the brightly lit classroom and began reading a picture book to the wide-eyed group of three-year-olds. It was about a Thanksgiving turkey being threatened by a fox.

Day care facilities, like this one in Highbridge, are facing their own impending threat as the city prepares to issue a proposal for re-evaluation of its funding of public childcare programs, a shakeup that could potentially alter how preschoolers are educated in the borough.

An outline of the plan drawn up in April titled “EarlyLearn NYC” is currently under revision by the Administration for Child Services (ACS) but is due to be finalized as a proposal by January. It will radically reformat the criteria for how public childcare facilities across the city receive funding and geographically organize their classrooms, and could reduce the overall number of contracts awarded to daycare providers. A new stipulation forcing directors to match an unspecified amount of funding for their programs is a special concern for centers in low-income neighborhoods.

A year after the city shuttered four daycare centers in the Bronx, including one in Highbridge, many program directors are unsure what the new measure will mean for their facilities.

“That’s a major, major issue that’s now on the boards,” said James Nathaniel, chief executive officer of the Highbridge Advisory Council, a non-profit  childhood education organization. “We don’t know what the future holds.”

Nathaniel’s organization is the largest community-based childcare provider in the Bronx, serving approximately 1,200 children in eight facilities throughout the district. But funding cutbacks in the last year have knocked away one classroom, slashed spending and dropped current teaching positions to the minimum student-teacher ratio.

Now, Nathaniel has another item to worry about: if the proposal goes through, he would need to reapply to continue running his agency, with no guarantee it will stay in his hands. Furthermore, the application for bidding for day care agencies will now be open to for-profit along with non-profit companies, adding to the competition for services and raising questions about where the overall system is headed.

“We’re not sure the level of quality the for-profits will adhere to for their programs,” said Andrea Anthony, executive director of the Daycare Council of New York, a federation that helps operate more than 300 public child care centers in the city. “Our programs are required to adhere to certain educational standards. That may not be the case with for-profits.”

The original proposal for “Early Learn” drafted on April 2 centered around three models for child-care services in New York City, according to its outline. No numbers have yet been released for how many children each model must support or how many programs could be cut entirely, though the outline indicated a decrease to 350 from the 570 contracts it currently holds with programs throughout the city.

An ACS spokesperson contended that the timing was necessary to allow for competitive bidding on contracts, some of which have been in place for nearly a decade. The city’s procurement policy board enforces how often proposals on services are issued, and, according to the spokesperson, the ACS was already overdue.

The move comes as New York City struggles to close a budget deficit of more than $60 million for ACS. In March, the city announced the closing of 15 daycare centers, for a savings of $9 million as part of the 2011 budget, as well as the plan to move five-year-olds into kindergarten classrooms and out of ACS’s hands. But the new budget is still $51 million less than the 2010 fiscal year budget, from $783 million to $732 million, according to a hearing on the budget.

The Independent Budget Office, a publicly funded agency that analyses and reviews New York City’s budget, determined it was the first time since 2005 that the city’s child-care budget dropped. Furthermore, an October report from the budget office stated that the Child Care Block Grant, a state funding source, will receive $12 million less money in 2011, meaning even less grant money for city centers.

The outline of the proposal received substantial criticism after its release, including rebuttals from the Day Care Council of New York, Inc., Head Start and the United Neighborhood Houses organization. All appeared before the City Council in May. Anthony said she is worried about converting to a childcare system that has not been tested.

“I’m really sorry to see it being released without more background or insight as far as how it will fare,” Anthony said.

Anthony also criticized the new requirement that providers match funding with money from outside sources. It’s unclear how big that match will have to be but Anthony said indications are it  will not be more than 10 percent. Still, that could be a challenge for facilities in low-income areas.

In his November 2010 financial plan, Mayor Bloomberg proposed saving $13 million by raising parent fees for children in subsidized child care to 17 percent from 12 percent, along with a minimum co-payment of $15 per week. That would not include money given to directors to help in their provider-match obligations.

“You can’t squeeze money from a rock,” Anthony said.

“The larger agencies with multiple locations and a large infrastructure are more set up to respond to this,” said Nancy Kolben, executive director of the Center for Children’s Initiatives, a non-profit organization focused on promoting early learning. “For others, it could be a real radical change.”

At BronxWorks, a borough-wide community organization based in Highbridge, administrators expect substantial cuts to the family childcare network, which encompasses more than 50 small, home-based daycare centers. Each network center, which typically is run by one person with only a handful of young pupils, is at risk of being eliminated if BronxWorks does not qualify for a minimum number of allowable network centers.

That would potentially force an additional 300 children to BronxWorks’s main classrooms, a surge it would not be able to handle.

“We don’t have the facilities,” said John Weed, assistant executive director of Bronx Works.

The United Neighborhood Housing organization, a New York community-based group that works with low-income families, believes the number of children served by public providers in the future will ultimately be cut back.

“Right now, [ACS is] serving about 27 percent of eligible children in New York City,” said Gregory Blender, the organization’s early childhood and education policy analyst. “We want that number to go higher and in fact what they’ve said publically is that under this the actual capacity will shrink.”

Weed said BronxWorks has managed to avoid funding cuts in the last year but, like Nathaniel’s program, survives with a minimum ratio of teachers to students allowable by the Department of Health, which regulates daycare providers.

Its main facility, along the Grand Concourse, teemed with youngsters in its four large preschool classrooms, all decorated in autumn colors, and it was clear that its director, Marcia Lawrence, had her hands full. The program recently added two free half-day programs with 18 students apiece, making BronxWorks a hectic but popular spot for local parents to send their kids.

In Highbridge alone there are only 18 main daycare facilities in place to serve a population of nearly 14,000 children under five years old. According to the 2000 Census, 37 percent live with a single mother and nearly 35 percent are not proficient in English.

“The impact of this (in the Bronx) could be quite substantial,” Kolben said, “whether you would see programs closing, programs combining, new partnerships. There are opportunities in this if the funding level is appropriate. That’s the real challenge: Is there the money to support this kind of change?”

The total funding for “EarlyLearn” was estimated at just under $617 million, according to the briefing presentation given after release of the outline in April.

In a precursor to the published outline that was acquired by the Bronx Ink, ACS cited numerous national studies in basing its “EarlyLearn” proposal on the principles of bringing more teachers into the classroom, improving curriculum, and enhancing collaboration with parents through more family support services — all ideals that could be outweighed by the stark financial realities the new proposal represents.

“We don’t want (children) to lose what little they have left,” Anthony said.

As their daycare director frets over potential shifting, the children at BronxWorks sit in blissful, cross-legged innocence as Semper wraps up her story. Tomorrow, they will draw turkeys using painted outlines of their tiny hands. And that is as far into the future as they care to look.

“These children really need a fighting chance,” Lawrence said. “If they don’t get it, I’m really scared about what could happen to them.”

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