Day-Care, Early-Education Concepts Seen Merging in New Planning

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As social conditions and knowledge about early learning change, so do the ways in which educators look at the possible roles schools can play.

And although a significant amount of disagreement remains over what distinctions should be made between custodial and educational services, for many educators those distinctions seem less important than the goals of caring for children, broadening educational opportunities, and using the capacity of schools to the fullest extent possible.

"What has happened over the last 10 years is that there has been less and less distinction between early-childhood programs and what used to be called custodial care," says Richard R. Ruopp of the Bank Street College of Education. The focus of educators, he contends, should always be on child development and on "providing opportunities to stimulate kids cognitively."

"Traditional day care is not suitable for children because there needs to be a stronger educational component," argues Irene Fiss, principal of a Connecticut elementary school. "At the same time, however, there must be a movement toward custodial care in an effort to provide more relaxed play areas with soft furniture, quiet places, and a provision for snacks."

Adds June Spooner, principal of Dean Road Elementary School in Auburn, Ala., "Children have a growth spurt of learning from the age of 4 to 6; by the time they're 7 years old, they already know 75 percent of what they'll know by the time they're 17." Whether their early learning takes place in a private or a school-related program, "it must work closely with the school system and the grade that comes after it," she argues.

On the other hand, cautions David Elkind, professor of child study at Tufts University and author of a 1981 analysis of day care called The Hurried Child, "Education in the narrow sense has no place in early-childhood education. The danger of early-childhood programs is that they become educational in the narrow sense. If early care is confused with education, then we have a problem, because then that leads to hurrying and to pressure, which is unnecessary."

Mr. Elkind contends that providing "good, quality child care is the most important problem in this country at the moment."

The issue, in Mr. Ruopp's view, is less one of definition than of "how to structure the programs to provide maximum developmental results." He does not think programs for young children necessarily have to cost a lot or be run by schools or supervised by teachers, although they can take place at schools.

But cost is nonetheless a major concern to educators considering how and whether to initiate such programs.

If the nation were to get involved in a massive program to provide preschool for all young children--as was proposed 13 years ago at the White House Conference on Children--the cost would be between $30 billion and $40 billion annually, estimates the Yale University child-development specialist, Edward F. Zigler, who is also the former director of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare's office of child development and the U.S. Children's Bureau.

(By 1990, there will be an estimated 15 million children four years old and under. Parents' average annual tuition cost for full-day preschool programs is about $2,000 per child, according to Mr. Ruopp.)

But that kind of national movement is--at this point--not politically feasible, Mr. Zigler contends, adding that "schools will have to team up, as they are now doing, with other agencies, with the schools in many cases only providing the space of the school building."

Although officials in North Carolina and elsewhere attribute their moves to expand the uses of schools in part to a desire to make community use of empty classrooms, a number of educators say there are more "self-serving" reasons for extending schooling and developing so-called latch-key programs.

Schools employ teachers and supervisors either already well trained to run preschool and after-school programs for young children or readily retrainable, some educators say. In New York, for example, where elementary-level teachers hold certificates to teach nursery school through grade 6 and a continued enrollment decline is anticipated, an additional pool of teachers is readily available, state officials point out.

In addition, public schools have lost enrollments to private schools that quickly "got into" providing day-care services, Mr. Zigler points out. "Now, many public schools are trying to catch up," he says.

"We're losing lots of kids to private schools simply because we can't provide after-school care for stu-dents. If we establish day-care facilities at the schools we can attract and retain many students," says Richard L. Curry, a school-board member in Dallas who is promoting a plan under which the Dallas Independent School District would lease space to private day-care firms for after-school care in some or all of the district's 129 elementary schools.

Other educators take the position that however school officials choose to describe their child-care or preschool programs, a principal rationale for them should be to provide access to high-quality learning environments for disadvantaged children.

Poor and middle-class families cannot afford to pay the $50 or $60 a week that is the average cost of private preschool programs, they point out. Few programs have sliding-scale fees that take into consideration family income, and federal and state support for child-care programs for low-income families has declined as a result of the Reagan Administration's 1981 budget cuts to Title XX, the largest federally subsidized day-care program for poor families.

(A recent study by the Children's Defense Fund indicates that state and federal support for day care for low-income families has dropped by 14 percent since 1981 as a result of the Title XX cuts.)

Unpublished data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that in 1980, 70 percent of families earning more than $25,000 had 4-year-old children in early-childhood-education programs, while only 37 percent of families with incomes of under $15,000 had 4-year-old children involved in such programs.

"Wealthier families have had two times the opportunity to attend preschool than the child whose family is poor," notes Bertha Campbell of the New York State Education Department's child-development bureau. ''The State of New York is not talking about mandating programs [for 4-year olds] but making them available to all kids."

"The sad paradox [of private preschools] is that fewer and fewer of the kids who are most helped by the programs are able to take advantage of them," adds Mr. Ruopp.

He and others point out that similar cost problems limit the access of disadvantaged children to day-care programs.

"Tax dollars can be used to provide access for the poor," suggests Mr. Zigler. "The middle class will have to pay--as they do willingly in hundreds of school programs across the country--and there can be subsidization from employers. It's is only this kind of mosaic that will be politically acceptable."

According to Michelle Seligson of the Wellesley Center for Research on Women, most programs housed in schools are run by outside groups that get their funds from tuition, government agencies, and private sources. School-based programs save money on overhead, sometimes enough to develop scholarship programs and sliding-scale fees for low-income children, she says.

"Schools should be community-based and serve the community," asserts Ms. Fiss, who is the principal of the John Lyman school in Middlefield, Conn., a rural town that is currently conducting a study of its child-care needs. "If families need child care beyond the traditional school day, it would be nice to house it in school."

Schools are a logical place for after-school programs, she adds, not just to save on transportation costs but because there are familiar surroundings and the same community of children. "When there is a different day-care provider after school, the child has to adjust to a different physical location, a different group of adults, and a different group of children at a time of day when the student is tired."

But other educators are not as supportive.

"Although there is a clear societal need, educational institutions already have assumed too many responsibilities," says Daniel Kahn, director of Anshe Emet Day School in Chicago. "For schools to take on the additional burden of child care is unrealistic."

Mr. Kahn and other private-school administrators note that there has been a great deal of pressure on independent schools to provide latch-key programs and preschool services.

'Parents pay tuition charges that can go as high as $5,000 per year and are 'locked in' to the need for day care," Mr. Kahn explains. "Parents say to us, 'I have to pay your tuition, so I work; now you have to provide after-school care and an extended day."'

And if the financial burdens on private schools are heavy because of child-care programs, Mr. Kahn suggests, the burdens on public schools would be "unbearable."

"Schools have so many responsibilities. They've been told to do this or that at a time when the national reports are saying that they cannot even do what they are doing," Mr. Zigler adds. What schools can provide is their expertise, he says. "Let someone else do the services."

The most vociferous opponents of school-based preschool and day-care programs appear to be the already-established providers of day care, who feel that they have expertise that schools do not have and who fear that schools will be moving in on their territory.

When the Minneapolis school district, which runs latch-key programs at 19 schools, established a self-supporting preschool program for 87 children at the former Northrup School last April, local day-care providers were outraged.

"In some communities which have no other agencies delivering preschool services, it might be very appropriate for schools to get involved," says Constance Bell, associate director of the Greater Minneapolis Day Care Association. "But in our community, the new program put the department of education in direct competition with for-profit and nonprofit groups already providing adequate service who had openings to accept more students."

"I don't know what that center could do that is not done in small centers, except showing the kids what it's like being in an institution," adds Willie West, director of the Happy Tots Day Care Center, which operates in the Bethesda Baptist Church in Minneapolis.

'Inherent Conflicts'

Even those educators who now run day-care programs note that there are some drawbacks and "inherent conflicts" in providing child care in schools.

"Use of school facilities for child care can conflict with use of facilities for other school activities, such as teams and clubs," according to Richard L. Mandel of the private Miquon School in Pennsylvania. "Classroom teachers will be hostile to a child-care program unless the equipment, materials, and supplies in their rooms can be protected from misuse, overuse, or vandalism." In addition, he points out, "maintenance and janitorial staffs will have to work for a whole new program. Expenses for utilities, maintenance, cleaning, and administration have to be allocated between school and child-care budgets."

And the children themselves may have negative feelings toward school that make them uncomfortable in a program housed in a school building. "Most school buildings are large, institutional structures, unlike the small, intimate scale of a home," Mr. Mandel suggests. "Discomfort on the part of the children would harm the relaxed, nurturing environment central to good child care."

But despite the difficulties, Mr. Mandel is one who argues that schools can--and should--become involved in providing the necessary care for children. "There is an urgent need to provide many additional child-care centers which are safe, convenient, affordable, and offer programs of high quality."

--sr & ab

Vol. 03, Issue 09

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