Private Schools Filling Child-Care Gap

By Kirsten Goldberg — April 15, 1987 7 min read

For five of his six years as principal of a private elementary school in Manhattan, Allan Shedlin Jr. resisted attempts to add an “extended day’’ program for the hours before and after school.

“The children already had a full day,’' he says. “I preferred that they go home and not have their time structured by adults.’'

A favorite story he used then to illustrate such adult “structuring’’ was of the family that kept a bottle of ketchup in the glove compartment, “so they could eat hamburgers in the car between kung-fu and ballet lessons.’'

But in 1983, Mr. Shedlin, now executive director of the nonprofit Elementary School Center, relented. He had found, like growing numbers of his colleagues, that not all private-school students spend their after-class hours being driven to ballet lessons.

“Childhood today is different,’' says Stephen E. Switzer, headmaster of Le Jardin Academy in Kailua, Hawaii, which will offer a before- and after-school day-care program for the first time next fall.

“The alternatives to our program,’' he says, “are coming home to an empty house, being glued to a TV set, being in another day-care program, or spending the afternoon with a nanny who might not speak the child’s native language.’'

Like their public-school counterparts, private educators are being asked more and more to fill a day-care gap created by the dramatic social and demographic changes of recent decades.

More single-parent families, more working mothers, and more two-income households, they say, mean that school-provided child care may no longer be merely a convenience for some parents. It may be an option that weighs heavily in their choice of schools.

Sidney I. DuPont, headmaster of the Grosse Point Academy in Grosse Point, Mich., estimates that 40 percent of the mothers of students at his school work.

“If I did not have [an extended-day] program, 20 to 25 students would not be in this school,’' he says.

All of the independent schools in the Detroit area have similar programs, he adds, as do some of the public schools.

Mr. Switzer of Hawaii’s Le Jardin Academy says that “families have told us that a key consideration in selecting a school is not only what it offers from 8 A.M. to 3 P.M., but alsoits after-school program.’' Le Jardin’s program, announced only two months ago, already has 65 of its approximately 400 students signed up to attend.

“It’s amazing,’' Mr. Switzer says. “The school never thought of doing this before.’'

‘Resounding Statistics’

Whether from increased competition or parental demands, the number of private schools that are “thinking of’’ the child-care option is growing dramatically in the 1980’s, according to educators.

A 1984 survey by the National Association of Independent Schools found that about one-third of the association’s 900 schools had an extended-day program.

More than 40 percent of the programs were started after 1979, and 14 percent were in their first year when the survey was conducted.

The National Association of Episcopal Schools estimates that one-third of its 600 schools have extended-day programs.

“The schools are responding to those resounding statistics about women in the workforce,’' says Ann Miles Gordon, executive director of the association.

Independent School Management, a consulting firm based in Wilmington, Del., that monitors schooling trends, began publishing a newsletter this year for directors of private extended-day programs. This summer, the firm will offer, for the first time, a summer workshop for school principals on how to start such a program.

The Council for American Private Education, a coalition of 14 private-school organizations, decided earlier this year to study the child-care problem and ways that private schools could respond to it.

Poses Questions

But the movement toward child-care provision is forcing private-school educators to confront a collection of unanswered questions--some of them common to all day-care providers, some specific to private education and its mission.

For example, although such extended-day programs at schools have been welcomed by many child-care advocates, they have also been criticized by some for keeping children in school for as long as 12 hours a day.

“That’s really beside the point,’' says David Elkind, president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and professor of child study at Tufts University, “the kids will be in day-care anyway.’'

“Perhaps mothers or fathers staying home with their children would be the ideal,’' says Anna M. Jones, director of the Charles River School in Dover, Mass., “but I don’t see that happening in our society.’'

“At least with these programs,’' she adds, “we know the children are fed, are safe, and have interesting things to do.’'

Others insist that a more fundamental question is what kind of activities should be offered in such programs.

Milk and Cookies

After-school programs should be recreational, and “not more school,’' says Ms. Gordon of the Episcopal-schools association. The structure should be loose enough to give children a choice of activities.

“Give children time to do what they would do at home: have a snack, talk, run and play with friends,’' she says. Having that choice--and the freedom to make their own decisions--is an important part of childhood, she argues.

In addition, she says, the adults supervising the children should be supporters, not teachers. “It’s what the traditional Mom with milk and cookies would do.’'

The extended-day program of the Charles River School in Delaware, which serves children in grades K-8 and lasts until 6 P.M., offers a variety of activities, according to Ms. Jones, from walks in the woods to painting, drawing, ceramics, drama, and cooking.

At Michigan’s Grosse Point Academy, the teacher who runs the before-school program has children help him cook blueberry pancakes once a month, according to Mr. DuPont, the headmaster.

“It becomes a little family,’' he says. “The older kids help the younger ones.’'

In short, says Mr. Switzer of Le Jardin Academy, programs should be fun. “The danger is in being too analytical and zealous in planning these programs,’' he says, “and, as a result, depriving a child of his childhood.’'

Because the extended-day programs are relatively new, there has been little research on their effect on children. Mr. Switzer was the co-author of a 1984 report for the NAIS that surveyed such programs.

In it, he concluded, from impressions gained on several site visits, that children are better off in such programs than to be alone.

Some children, he wrote, expressed a desire to be in extended-day programs on some days and at home on others. He suggested that parents try to be home earlier than usual at least one day a week.

The costs of setting up an extended-day program are minimal, according to officials involved in such programs. Because they use existing school facilities, the majority of costs are for staffing and supplies. Mr.DuPont estimated that the Grosse Point Academy runs its program for about $23,000 a year: $10,000 for the professional staff, $10,000 for the college students who assist the teachers, and another $3,000 for art materials, secretarial help, and advertising.

“It’s the type of thing any school can do,’' he says.

Grosse Point charges $30 for registration in the program, and $2.50 an hour. There is a $10-per-hour penalty if a child is left at school beyond 6:15 P.M.

The program serves between 25 and 30 students. “We do a little better than break even,’' Mr. DuPont says.

Staffing such programs, however, is the biggest obstacle, according to other educators.

“Day care is at the bottom of the pile in terms of prestige in early-childhood education, which itself is at the bottom of education,’' Ms. Gordon says. She notes that turnover in day-care facilities is traditionally high, and that wages are relatively low.

But Mr. Switzer maintains that finding a good child-care professional is no more difficult than finding a good teacher.

Teachers in such programs, he says, must “go easy on the structure, and heavy on the warmth.’'

Wrong Reasons

Offering extended-day programs can be an excellent marketing tool for private institutions, concludes Nancy Harmon of Independent School Management. And studies have shown, she adds, that if children are introduced to private schools at an early age, they are more likely to stay in private schools for the duration of their education.

But while most private-school officials recognize the marketing advantages of before- and after-school programs, many say such reasons are not good enough to justify the endeavor.

They insist that such programs be a service, not a revenue-producing device.

“The wrong reason for starting a program is to make money to build more buildings,’' Ms. Gordon asserts. “The right reason is to meet the needs of families.’'

“Unfortunately,’' she adds, “there may be schools starting day-care or extended-day [programs] for the wrong reason.’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 15, 1987 edition of Education Week as Private Schools Filling Child-Care Gap