Day Care: A Tale of Two Neighborhoods

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Entrance Little Sun People Too! (Rebecca Ellis / The Brooklyn Ink)

Little Sun People Too, a publicly funded pre-K early education and day care center, is nestled between two storefronts in an industrial block that breaks up the brownstone landscape of residential Bedford-Stuyvesant. The center, which accepts children three and up, is easy to spot, thanks to its bright mural, depicting a sun and festive children, “little suns,” orbiting around the big adult in the center. Its sign reads: One of the Very Best Early Childhood Programs Within the Historic Community of Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Inside, the wallpaper invokes Africa, with images of elephants and palm trees. A sundial hanging on the wall peers out with Egyptian eyes over the waiting area. “I bought this on one of my travels,” says Francis Barclift, 61, director of Little Sun People Too. “It was the only one I found that has a brown face in the middle.”

Barclift has been running the center for 17 years. She sits in the reception window, her hair pulled back into tiny dreadlocks. She describes her struggle to stay open. “I have to pinch pennies,” she says. She points to the blue sofa by the front door, its shiny velour surface lit by sunlight streaming in through dingy blinds. “It was reupholstered, fixed board underneath.” The sofa and blinds are probably the same ones that were there 24 years ago when the center started, she says. The building, built in 1913 and covering 18,600 square feet, is leased by the city. It is impeccably clean and well heated, though the linoleum floor showed signs of wear.

Francis Barclift, Director Little Sun People Too! (Rebecca Ellis / The Brooklyn Ink)

While gentrification is improving economic indicators in places like Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, it is putting pressure on the working class people who remain — and on the institutions that serve them, including public day care centers. Blue collar residents are limited in what they can pay for day care services, and thanks to gentrification, these families are slowly moving out of the neighborhood, as rents increase. Those two trends leave state-subsidized centers like Little Sun People Too struggling to stay afloat.

Barclift is hard pressed to fill Little Sun People Too to capacity (60 children). She says that even private day care centers are having difficulty making ends meet in Bed-Stuy. “The market in Bed-Stuy is way under the cost of care,” Barclift says, explaining that private centers can’t charge market rates if they want to keep clients in that area. She said that a private center could not charge more than $700 a month in Bed-Stuy, or $7,000 over a typical 10-month term.

But a neighborhood away, the difference is stunning. Brooklyn Heights Montessori, which serves urban professional couples in Brooklyn Heights, is able to charge a lucrative $30,000 for 10 months of full-time early childcare (under three years old).

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The cost of child care is rising commensurate to the cost of living and real estate in New York, while real salaries are not. According to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (NACCRRA) 2010 statistics, child care has increased twice as fast as the median income of families with children in New York since 2000. New York is now the second most expensive state in the nation for childcare, where full-time child care can cost more than $10,847.

That amounts to 15.8 percent of the median single-mother family’s income in the state of New York, which is $25,847, slightly above the median household income for a single parent family in Bed-Stuy. To put it in perspective, the cost of child care is twice the cost of the average tuition for a state college in New York, which is $5,761, according to NACCRRA.

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According to the Zillow housing index, rents on the block where Little Sun People Too is located increased 6.5 percent in 2011, and now average $1,650 for single-family dwellings. Meanwhile, homes that could have sold for $340,000 in 2010 could sell for $449,000 in 2011, threatening to price out families in a community where 46.1 percent are receiving some kind of social assistance, and 30 percent live below the federal poverty line, compared with 20 percent in New York City.

Cost of real estate for past ten years in Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. (Zillow index)

If rising rents and real estate costs drive poorer families out—along with ACS centers like Little Sun People Too —something more than quality childcare for needy families would be lost: specialized education. Little Sun People Too, for example, one of 16 public group day care centers in Bedford-Stuyvesant, focuses on African and African-American history.
Barclift returned to Bed-Stuy after she left the neighborhood with her family when she was nine years old. She liked the neighborhood’s cultural diversity. “I always felt comfortable here,” Barclift says. “It is a working class community of people of color.”

Despite growing up in Bed Stuy, Barclift says she knew little about history other than slavery, including her own people’s history, and she began “feeling ashamed. So I felt less in my own potential.” She counteracted her feelings of insecurity by educating herself. “As I started learning about our global history, learning about myself as an entity in the big world, I wanted to teach children of color. I wanted to have a program that instilled a sense of pride in them.”

But as the families in her center are being pushed out by rising rents, Barclift fears that the neighborhood is losing its multicultural character. “It is hard for me to predict what’s going to happen. The neighborhood is changing, families are leaving,” Barclift said. “Other families are coming in but they don’t qualify for public day care. Will working class families stay? That’s the question on my mind.”

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Barclift’s conch shell-adorned index finger presses the buzzer as parents trickled in to pick up their kids after work. She greets them as they come in.

Barclift makes $55,000 a year as director of the center, an income well above the average income in the immediate vicinity of her day care center. Many of the parents, like Yomaly Muhammad, 30, earn a lot less. Muhammad makes an annual salary of $32,000 as a paralegal in Manhattan.

Muhammad moved to Bed-Stuy from Queens, where she was paying $565 a month, the full fare, for older son’s day care. Now, a voucher from the New York City Administration of Child Services allows her to send her youngest daughter to Little Sun People Too for only $100 per week. Her 3-year-old introduces herself, showing off a newly acquired skill: “My name is spelled F-A-T-I-M-A-H!”

She says Little Sun People was a great choice for her. She likes the non-Eurocentric emphasis of Little Sun People, where she says her daughter can learn about where she came from. Fatimah has a multicultural background. Her father is black and Muhammad is Hispanic, second generation Dominican.

Muhammad chose Little Sun People Too in Aug. 2009, after passing by its colorful doors on Marcus Garvey Boulevard a few times. “I saw someone coming in with a child,” she recalls. “I went in and they gave me a tour. It reminded me of where I went when I was little, which I liked.”

In February, Muhammad and other parents were treated with songs the kids learned while playing roles of famous African Americans, like Rosa Parks, in the school’s Black history month play.

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In nearby Prospect Heights is another kind of daycare center—New York City Explorers, located in the back of a café that serves the famous Marble Ice Cream. Around 3 in the afternoon, groups of neighborhood kids come in to sample free tastes of the organic ice cream, which otherwise sells at $4 a scoop.

Behind the café, two tykes were playing in the colorful cubbyholes. A spacious backyard awaits the kids in warmer weather, where the center sometimes hosts activities and arts and crafts. A heater, to the right, is designed with the look of a fireplace with a hearth. Plenty of books spill out of wooden shelves, and Clara, a new arrival, was busy crawling through a rainbow mesh caterpillar. In the corner was a dollhouse the size of a doghouse. The kitchen and bathroom facilities were clean, well lighted, and new. Nowhere were there any signs of wear-and-tear.

While Explorers is a certified facility, the only alternative for many low-income families is unlicensed childcare, like babysitting, and even that comes at a high price for New York’s low-income families. Informal babysitters advertise on various online parent forums in New York City for an average $12 an hour. But many parents are concerned about trusting their child to an inexperienced babysitter, especially for longer periods times, and some families in Prospect Heights are willing and able to pay a higher price.

That is why parents in Prospect Heights hire qualified babysitters at Explorers at a rate of $57 for three hours, or $750 for 50 prepaid hours. NY City Explorers is a private day care and babysitter referral service for children from infants to 4 years of age. And it is to cheap. Even adding up the 50 prepaid hours over a year’s time, the cumulative rate comes out to $18,750 annually. That is more than half the median income of Bed-Stuy, which was $36,878 in 2009, according to the American Communities Survey, highlighting the stark contrast between the child care the markets for Prospect Heights and Bed-Stuy.

But $18,750 a year for babysitters is the kind of price some professional families are willing, and apparently able, to pay in Prospect Heights. The percentage of people living below the poverty line in the neighborhood has stayed around 22 percent in the past five years, but the fact that high-end private day care and baby sitter referral options like NY City Explorers have recently cropped up in the area indicate a new type of demand in the area. This is likely due to recent demographic shifts in the area, where more affluent families have moved to the neighborhood. In the past ten years, 6,000 new families with children have relocated to Prospect Heights, and the median income is $75,000 a year.

Besides babysitter referral, New York City Explorers offers several other programs as well from 11-3 Monday through Friday. These include drop-offs, open play, and a full-time preschool 101 program, which charges an annual tuition of over $17,000. The day care center’s open play program, where parents stay and play with their children, charges $21 an hour, and the drop-off program charges $40 for four hours.

The fact that Explorers offers package deals for ad-hoc childcare likewise indicates a different reality in Prospect Heights, where one parent can often stay home, at least part of the time. “Sometimes, parents just need a change of scenery,” said Amanda Deboins, the site director, about the Explorers’ open play program. “We’re the place to go on a cold, rainy and snowy day.”

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Barclift would like to provide infant and toddler care at Little Sun People Too, but she said in order to meet city and state quotes for ratios of caregiver to child, this type of early childhood care is too expensive and labor-intensive to offer.

Ellen Abbot, co-president of the New York City Association for the Education of Young Children, confirmed Barclift’s fears about the changes in the neighborhood causing subsidized day care centers to shut down. If rents are too high, the families that can afford to remain in the neighborhood, as well as the more affluent newer families attracted to the gentrifying neighborhood, earn too high of an income to qualify for ACS. Realistically, a family of three would need to earn more than $55,000 annually to afford the more than the total of $20,000 at the current rental rates. And that is too high of an income to qualify for subsidized childcare.

The maximum annual income level for state-assisted childcare eligibility in New York for a family of two is $40,068, which is a higher maximum than the rest of the country. State child care services ads 275 percent above the state income standard – which is $29,140 for a family of two – for New York City families to account for the high cost of living. But that allowance may not be generous enough. For example, an annual salary of $55,000 for a family of two, while providing a nice middle-class standard of living in many parts of the country, may be enough to pay rent, insurance, and eke out a decent living in New York City’s boroughs, but paying over $10,000 annually for quality childcare for their toddlers can still unduly strain even these income levels. These are the working families who fall through the cracks, because this salary is too high to qualify for state-assisted childcare. The rising rents in neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy simply add to the pressures these families face, who face less child care options as quality subsidized alternatives like Little Sun People Too struggle to find patronage in a neighborhood where the median income going up. Ironically, while this improves economic indicators for neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy, gentrification poses an especially heavy financial burden on working families who stick it out and remain in the neighborhood, but who still may need subsidized early daycare.
Across all neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the poverty rate is 35 percent. The ACS estimates that 5,000 infants and toddlers in Brooklyn need child care now. “It’s a difficult period right now,” Barclift said. “There’s never enough resources. Payments were low before the teachers get their credentials and when they do, they leave. It’s even harder to pay people the salary they deserve. It’s heartbreaking. But there is no way we can compete. Some of my teachers live in subsidized housing.”

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Diane Benjamin, 36, and Erin, 3, a pupil at Little Sun People Too! (Rebecca Ellis / The Brooklyn Ink)

It’s parents like Diane Benjamin, 36, who would fall between the cracks if she could not find a slot in a subsidized daycare center like Little Sun People Too.

Benjamin, a mother of three, sends her youngest daughter to Little Sun People Too. She earns $55,000 a year working as a medical biller, almost too much to qualify for subsidized care, but not enough to make quality daycare affordable. She pays $26 a week with a voucher, or around $1100 a year, which is one-tenth of the full price of day care in New York without a voucher.

Her daughter, Erin, is a spritely three years old, with braids and clips in her hair. She was bouncing on her mother’s lap in the waiting area. Shy at first, Erin began to open up. She sang “Good morning to you, good morning to you…” one of the many songs she learned at Little Sun People Too.

This story is part of a series of stories that focuses on the less economically vibrant parts of Brooklyn. For more, check out the rest of our Under the Radar series.

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