OP/ED: City Denies Daycare: Let the children play, but where?

Opinion/Editorial by Brooke Parker

City Denies Daycare: Let the children play, but where?

Williamsburg parents are branded by their choice of child care: stay-at-home moms or dads, Tibetan or Jamaican nannies, DIY child care collectives, home-schooling (apparently people consider a two-year-old home-schooled), Williamsburg Northside, Mi Escuelita, Williamsburg Neighborhood Nursery School (WNNS). Each option signals something meaningful, with very subtle differences, about who these parents are, how much money they earn (it costs $12-18/hour for a nanny and $15-25K for nursery schools), and what they believe about parenting, be they progressive, ambitious, bohemian, or conservative.

While we complain about the costs associated with each of these options, daycare is rarely mentioned within the span of choices available to a category of Williamsburg parents. Many of us can afford otherwise, or we’re snobs.

Unfortunately, having Williamsburg parents who can afford nannies and nursery schools means the loss of daycare for our most at-risk families.

Last year, Mayor Bloomberg restructured the way New York City subsidizes daycare centers through an initiative called “Early Learn NYC,” where priority subsidization is given to neighborhoods with high-density poverty as identified by zip code. Many Williamsburg families will be brutally punished by gentrification, which has decreased the density of poverty in Williamsburg. Several of our daycare centers will be forced to close their doors.

Within the East Williamsburg community, Small World is famous for the homey Italian grandmas who cook three hot meals a day from scratch for their charges. Some of their teachers, with advanced degrees in early childhood education, attended Small World themselves, lending the school a unique and cozy ambience. Families boast of the loving care their children receive and of the crucial service they provide for single parents and working families. Like any of our posh nursery schools, Small World provides Williamsburg children with all of the benefits of early childhood education: robust language practice through stories and songs, social learning through play and pretend, hands-on learning with art and materials, and opportunities to engage with nature through gardening and field trips. Mobiles hang from the ceiling, and the walls are decorated with art projects.

Tuition at Small World is on a sliding scale ranging from $15 to $140 per week, but the majority of families who use the service are “working poor,” which is defined as having income below 200% of the poverty level, or as earning $36,620 for a family of three. Small World’s hours are manageable for working parents, allowing pick-up at 6pm, something impossible to find in Williamsburg nursery schools.

Kimberly Sevilla, floral designer and owner of Red Rose and Lavender, reluctantly considered Small World when she was wait-listed for private nursery choices. “It turned out to be a godsend. As a small-business owner, there was no way I would have been able to start my business without Small World caring for my daughter. It will take years to break even, but having affordable child care allowed me to hire employees and grow my business.” Sevilla’s description of her daughter’s experience at Small World echoes how I described the experience my daughters had at WNNS: devoted teachers who are knowledgeable and experienced, and the feeling that I’ve left my daughters in the hands of people who would care for them as though they were family.

For Sevilla, losing Small World as an option would mean having to hire a nanny, and consequently lose an employee. Many of the Small World families are far more economically vulnerable. When asked what she would do if Small World closed, Julie Torres, a Williamsburg native and single parent of a three-year-old boy said, “I seriously don’t know. I don’t have any babysitter. I couldn’t afford it. I’d have to go on welfare.” Torres has high praise for Small World’s impact on her son, and concern for what a babysitter could offer even if she could afford it. “All a babysitter will do is let him watch TV all day. Small World is giving my son a head start for elementary school. He wasn’t social before he came here and now he’s learning how to talk and read.”

That parents like Torres will be forced to either leave the workforce entirely or pursue dangerous illegal underground daycare alternatives should worry us deeply. Underground daycares prey upon parents like Torres who are in dire need of affordable child care. A quick search on Craigslist and you’ll find people willing to care for children in their home for $150 week. Laws were put in place to regulate daycares to prevent unsanitary conditions, like undisposed feces or cockroaches and mice in kitchens, and to ensure background checks that prevent sexual and physical abuse; and that’s before we consider the training involved in certifying early-childhood educators. An underground daycare in Queens was in the news recently when a child drowned in a mop bucket. At the bare minimum, regular oversight certainly could have saved the child who died from choking while eating a carrot because no one was trained in CPR.

The negative ripple effect of Small World’s closing will reach 100 children Small World currently serves and over twenty staff members who will lose their jobs. Small World’s after-school program suffered from a slashed budget, as well, when a similar Bloomberg initiative cut funds to IS 318’s national-award-winning chess team, among numerous other after-school programs with vital community importance. Also, two thirds of the rent for Small World’s building comes from Small World, which puts the Swinging Sixties Senior Center, on the ground floor, in peril.

This isn’t the first time the mayor has made big cuts to daycare and after-school programs. In previous years, City Council budgets have  made up the difference. This year may not see that solution, as a new law only allows the City Council to restore funds to organizations rather than front them money. Small World would need to raise enough money to pay 30-40% of its costs up front in order to qualify for reimbursement. None of our daycare centers are in a position to do that. The mayor is playing a dangerous game of chicken with City Council funds, and our children will lose.

Small World’s closure, along with many other Williamsburg daycare centers, represents how the influx of wealth has rendered poverty invisible here, at the expense of our most at-risk families. When we read the inevitable news stories of children killed in illegal daycares or the horrifying consequences of children left home unattended, we have only ourselves to blame if we don’t speak up for the families that gentrification has displaced.

Small World teachers are hopeful that spreading the word about this crisis will help their cause. There is still time to urge the mayor to reconsider his ill-thought-out and dangerous policy. Support your neighbors and sign the petition through Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York (cccnewyork.org) or call 311 and let the mayor know that you want subsidization restored to Williamsburg’s daycare centers.

You can also join the Small World Day Care community at their Annual Carnival on Friday, June 29th, from 10am to 4pm, at 211 Ainslie Street. I’m sure the food will be delicious, and the kids will be delighted. For those in need of child care during the school break, Small World is open all year long!

Visit the Facebook community page “Save Small World Daycare & Universal Pre-K” for more information, and/or to get involved.