Published Online: April 16, 1997

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Settlement House Continues a Tradition

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  • Name of Program: The Early Childhood Center at University Settlement House.
  • Location: Lower east side of Manhattan, New York City.
  • Children served: From 2 years and 9 months to age 5. Parents must meet income-eligibility requirements.
  • Average cost: Free to parents with children in Head Start; for parents whose children attended the former child-care classes, fees are on a sliding scale, based on income levels.
  • focus: A combined Head Start and child-care program, including academic activities, art, music, storytelling, recreation, and meals. Parents who previously enrolled their children in the child-care programs now receive Head Start's social services and participate in parent-involvement activities.

New York City

Mercedes Hernandez may not be as well-known as some of the people who have passed through the doors of University Settlement House on Manhattan's lower east side. But she and her two daughters, 5-year-old Linda and 3-year-old Adalyz, are just as much a part of the building's 100-year history.

The two girls attend the settlement's early-childhood classes, continuing the facility's rich background of educating the neighborhood's young children and helping the area's poor immigrant families adjust to life in the United States. As part of the city's Work Experience Program, Hernandez works 20 hours a week in a classroom so she can receive her $145 welfare check every other week.

But University Settlement House, which has been helped by such notables as first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, composer George Gershwin, and actor Walter Matthau, has provided Hernandez with more than just a job.

Not only are her children getting ready for school, but Hernandez is picking up tips on how she can help them at home.

"Mommy's not going to be there all the time," she said. "A child staying home for five years and then going to school is terrified. They need this."

After 10 or 11 years without a job, Hernandez, a former secretary, is updating her resume and thinking about returning to school herself. And she's hopeful that she and her daughters will soon move out of her mother's one-bedroom apartment, now shared by seven people.

"I really like working with children," she says. "People like us don't want to depend on the government for the rest of their lives."

Surrounded by boarded-up buildings, tenement houses, and Chinese restaurants, University Settlement has seen gradual changes in the flow of newcomers to this country--from Irish, Germans, and Jews to Puerto Ricans and Dominicans and now Chinese.

Inside, where Chinese New Year decorations still hang from the ceiling and brick fireplaces in the classrooms echo back to the days when people who worked at the settlement lived on the premises, a successful experiment is taking place--one that combines the family services of Head Start with the full-day availability of government-subsidized child care.

"There was this myth that day care was for working parents and Head Start was for nonworking parents," said Ronni Fisher, an assistant executive director for programs at the settlement house. "Why should some parents get some things and others not?"

Now Lorraine Rivera, who has worked in the settlement's child-care program for 18 years, is visiting her students' homes and taking children for dental checkups. "I've even learned a little Chinese," she says.

While Rick Nelson, another teacher in the same class, is glad the program meets the needs of working parents, he sometimes thinks the school day is too long for children this age. But he still values the personal involvement he has with his students.

"I can tell you something about every child in this room. I feel like I'm doing social work," says Nelson, turning to look out the window at a newly renovated building that serves as an AIDS hospice. "Sometimes, I think it's weird that there are people dying across the street and over here we've got young children."

Nelson had earned his teaching certificate and was working on his graduate degree in art education when he took the job at University Settlement House. Now, he says he wants to continue working with preschoolers.

"They have a different energy level. They're so curious and so imaginative," he said.

While all the children now receive the same program, attempting to combine sources of federal funds can create obstacles that sometimes border on the absurd.

"I have a kitchen that needs repair, and we can't get it repaired because no one knows what money to use for it," Fisher said. "It's used by both programs."

She also hasn't been able to mix the teaching staffs, so some classes have Head Start teachers and some are led by those with a child-care background.

When the changes first took place three years ago, parents were more concerned about making sure their children still got a graduation ceremony than how the educational program might improve. But now, because of Head Start's high standards for parent participation, a far greater percentage attend the parent meetings and volunteer in the classrooms.

Parent meetings can get a little hairy with so many languages being spoken, but Fisher said she'd rather have a little confusion than separate parents into different committees.

The changing population in the neighborhood is also evident in the settlement's library. Vernia Felder, the librarian and a graduate of the settlement's adult-literacy program, has built a collection of Spanish and Chinese books, but she's having trouble finding some written in Bengali.

Another challenge Fisher faces is finding and keeping qualified bilingual teachers. Instead of losing staff to other professions, as is the case in many states, early-childhood programs in New York compete with the public schools for teachers because those who work with young children are still required to be certified.

In addition to child-care programs, University Settlement House provides programs to allow struggling parents to focus on their own self-improvement. Through a combination of federal money and the settlement's own funding, parents can take computer programming, literacy classes, and family counseling, among other offerings.

"We are working all the time, so we don't have time to teach her," said Jeffrey Chong, whose 5-year-old daughter, Vivian, attends school at the settlement while he cooks at a restaurant and his wife works in a factory.

The Chongs waited for almost a year before a slot opened up for Vivian. And both teachers and parents say their neighbors are always asking if there are any openings. Those on the waiting lists leave their children with relatives, neighbors, or wherever they can.

"I've seen parents actually take kids to the factories and let them play on the floor," Fisher said.

The settlement provides infant care through a network of registered family-child-care workers, and Fisher is trying to tap into additional funds to increase the number of providers, part of her continuing effort to extend the settlement's reach.

In cooperation with another settlement house, she's received an Early Head Start grant from the federal government, which will be used to serve children from birth to age 3.

The settlement also runs an after-school program. And Fisher is now joining with New York University and another settlement house to open a charter school this fall for middle schoolers.

"In order to attract more money," she said, "you've got to be innovative and interesting."

--LINDA JACOBSON

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