When Nicole, a Mamaroneck mother, began looking into childcare services for her two-year-old daughter, she was stunned to find that the facilities she was considering all had waiting lists of one to three years. After speaking with a friend, she found that she was not alone; her friend had waited a year before she could enroll her child in a local facility. Not only that, the cost was surprisingly high. “As new parents, we didn’t think we had to worry about this type of thing until the college years,” Nicole admits, “but my friends and I were mistaken and surprised.” “There’s definitely a shortage,” says Sandy Kewley, associate executive director of the Childcare Council of Westchester, “despite the fact that the number of regulated childcare slots has more than doubled in the last 10 years to over 25,000.” In fact, the demand for childcare in the county has grown at an even higher rate, resulting in an additional 57,000 children potentially in need of childcare services. Parents searching for infant care will have an even harder time, because for infants and school-age children, there is only one available slot for every five children with working parents.
Why the recent increase in demand? According to the Child Care Council, it’s due to a combination of factors. An increase in households in which both parents work, and the shift from welfare to employment are two of the biggest reasons. Add to that families who are new to the county, and recently divorced or otherwise newly single parents who need to return to the workforce, and the numbers go up even more. In Westchester, over 50 percent of mothers with children under six years of age, and over 70 percent with school-age children, are in the workforce. Spokespeople from childcare facilities throughout the county know that spaces are scarce. Michael Wiltsek, owner of the Bedford Discovery School (BDS) in northern Westchester, has felt the shortage since before breaking ground to build his year-and-a-half-old facility. “I had parents of infants giving me down payments to reserve spots for their children,” he says, and he still receives calls from people as soon as they discover they are pregnant, which he says is the best thing to do. Right now, Wiltsek estimates a nine-month wait for infant slots. This high demand proved to be the incentive for growth: BDS is planning to expand, and expects to more than double its infant slots by the summer. Until the new slots are available, Wiltsek points parents in need of infant care to the Child Care Council for assistance. Carol Dubiel, director of the Early Child Care Program at the YWCA Child Care Center in White Plains, notes that within the last two to three years, her facility has also seen a large increase in demand. The additional calls she’s been receiving are even more surprising because the YWCA does not advertise its services; all new calls have come through word-of-mouth. Right now, Dubiel notes that she has approximately 50 people waiting for an opening of one of its 28 slots. But because new siblings of children already in the program get priority, the turnover is slow. To help parents, Dubiel refers them to the Child Care Council for assistance in finding care elsewhere. “This seems to me to be a national issue,” she says. “There’s an increasing need, but no way to fund a solution. We as a society need to ask ourselves, why are we not funding programs for young children?” Laura Strong, executive director of St. Peter’s Child Care Center, Inc. in Yonkers, echoes Dubiel’s sentiments. St. Peter’s, which has 68 full-time slots for three-, four- and five-year-olds, has the space but not the funds to take on more children. She admits to having an empty classroom, and to laying off three staff members recently. Because the facility provides mostly subsidized care to families in need, the combination of increasing overhead costs and a county-set rate of subsidization causes parents to look elsewhere because they can’t afford the co-fee required. “The need is there,” says Strong, “but the money is not. Every licensed slot requires a certain amount of money from the state, which is not currently being provided.” Strong is currently taking information from parents looking for care, so she does have a wait list. But ironically, although she has the space and the need, until she can afford to hire adequate staff, there’s nothing she can do for them. Parents looking for childcare can contact the Childcare Council of Westchester. The Council provides a free referral service for families looking for care in the county. Before calling, consider what your needs will be. What hours will you need childcare? Do you require a religious curriculum? Another language? Do you have a special needs child? Laura, a Somers mother, shopped around for some time before finding the home-based facility that was right for her, and didn’t let herself get pressured. “One place said, ‘There’s one spot left and it’s going fast,’” she recalls. “It was like they felt they could force me into a commitment, just because there’s such a high demand.” “Parents should feel comfortable with the facility where their child is enrolled,” says Sandy Kewley. “Make sure you know what’s important to you.” The Child Care Council of Westchester can be reached through their website at www.childcarewestchester.org, or by calling (914) 761-3456, x140, Monday through Friday, 8am-5pm.
When Care is Needed After School By Martha Williams
Ask a school-age child what makes a good afterschool program and you may hear: sports and physical activities, arts and crafts, computer time, social interactions and “cool” teachers/counselors. Ask the parent or guardian, and they may add: homework assistance, tutoring, leadership skills training, community service, and interaction with caring adults and mentors. While early childcare focuses on the provision of safe, healthy and nurturing environments, school-age care must also tackle issues such as social awareness, leadership development, conflict resolution and equality.
What is School-Age Care? School-age care is specifically designed for children ages 5-12, and is provided outside of school hours, including vacation, holiday and before and after school. It can be found in a variety of settings including public and private schools, recreation centers, churches and synagogues, childcare centers and family childcare homes, and is often run by schools, nonprofit organizations and independent business owners/operators. Quality afterschool programs provide positive environments and enriching age-appropriate activities. Group sizes are determined by state regulations, and programs are required to be registered by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services. Most programs run on a school-year calendar. A program may have earned national accreditation through the National School-Age Care Alliance, which means they have reached a level of quality above licensing. Some programs may be free, base costs on family income, or offer subsidies or scholarships.
Qualities of a Good After School Program Afterschool programs play an important role in children’s intellectual, social, emotional and physical development. A good program should offer children the chance to have fun and feel comfortable, and give them a sense of excitement about learning. Activities at a quality school-age program should foster the self-esteem, confidence, competency and independence of each child, as well as serve to develop interpersonal social skills and promote respect for cultural diversity and difference of opinions. Parents should look for a program that provides enriching learning activities with the time and space necessary for quiet study. In addition, a good program should provide activities that can help develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Physical and recreational activities are important to both develop physical skills and channel energy pent up after a day sitting in a classroom. Opportunities for community service can enhance character development; mentoring relationships with adults serve as role models and teach children constructive uses for free time.
What to Look For and Questions to Ask • Look for a good staff-to-child ratio to allow for individualized attention. • Is the program registered and/or accredited? • Does the program seem clean, safe and organized? • Do children appear to be busy and happy? • Are there adequate supplies? • Is the playground area safe and fenced in? • Have all staff members been trained in CPR and first aid? • Is the staff cooperative with and respectful of one another? • Are the bathrooms clean? • Is the program familiar with Office of Children and Family Services regulations and national quality of standards? • How are families involved? • What is the system for knowing where children are at all times? • What is the procedure for handling emergencies? • How are sick children handled?
Parents are entitled to a copy of the program’s policies with its mission statement and philosophy, and a list of schedules and fees. References should also be easily obtained from the provider. Afterschool programs can have a profound influence on the life of a school child, so selecting the right program for your child is essential.
MARTHA WILLIAMS is director of the Institute for School-Age Child Care (ISACC), Child Care Council of Westchester, Inc., 470 Mamaroneck Avenue, White Plains, (914) 761-3456, ext. 103.