Early Childhood

Late-Night Child Care Meets Needs Of Milwaukee Families

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 11, 2002 6 min read
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Despite the nation’s largely unmet demand for child care outside of traditional work hours, groups that are responding to the need are few and far between.

Then there’s La Causa.

Located in a neighborhood here that has seen better times economically, the Hispanic advocacy organization has found it financially feasible, with the help of federal child-care subsidies, to provide care from 5:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. the following day.

The center provides the service for children ranging in age from 4 weeks to 12 years. It is open Monday through Friday.

“You can imagine the effort it would take for a parent to try to coordinate after-school care until they got home at 11 at night,” said Wendy L. Bahr, the director of enhancement and enrichment for La Causa, which means “the cause” in Spanish. “The parents don’t have to worry about that. There are some options here.”

Most of the parents who use the center—including many of the child-care workers themselves—are of Mexican or Puerto Rican heritage and have participated in the federal government’s Welfare to Work program. Many of the parents receive federal child-care subsidies, which La Causa accepts. The organization also uses other government money and grants from private foundations to keep its program afloat.

Next year, La Causa plans to begin providing child care 24 hours a day, including weekends.

No one at La Causa likes the idea that parents would leave their children at a child-care center throughout the night, Ms. Bahr said. But she added, “We don’t want kids to be at home alone either.”

Child-care experts applaud La Causa’s attempt to provide care during the odd hours that poor people often find jobs.

On a busy night, 70 children stay at La Causa for at least part of its “night shift,” which runs from 6 p.m. to 1:30 in the morning, while their parents toil as factory workers or in service jobs in hotels, hospitals, and restaurants. Parents are not allowed to keep their children in the center for more than 12 hours in a 24-hour period.

“For at least five years, we’ve been hearing there is a tremendous need, especially because of changes in the welfare system, that lead women to working off-shift or around the clock,” said Joyce A. Shortt, the co-director of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time, located at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass. “They must do it, and finding child care is difficult.”

La Causa’s effort is part of a growing trend to extend the hours in which child care is provided, added Alan Simpson, the communications director for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, based in Washington. He said that schools are also increasingly seeing the need to collaborate more closely with child-care programs.

The NAEYC, which has accredited the La Causa child-care program, doesn’t officially track the hours of service of the centers it accredits. Still, Mr. Simpson added, “we’re hearing about more and more programs that are considering or have established longer hours.”

Even so, he agreed that the late-night service that La Causa provides isn’t available in many communities.

Parents say they are drawn to La Causa because it provides child care within a context of Hispanic culture. Narcisa Valdez, a native of the Dominican Republic and the mother of four children, said she chose the child-care center “por el idioma” —because of language.

Hispanic Context

Like Ms. Valdez, some other parents who leave their children at the center speak only Spanish, and they appreciate the fact that many of the La Causa staff members speak their native language. Ms. Valdez says she trusts putting her children into the hands of other Hispanic women, who make up most of the staff at La Causa’s child-care center.

Martha Vanegas, the mother of 9-year-old Sammy Soto, agrees. Ms. Vanegas emigrated from Nicaragua in 1989 and now works as the secretary for David A. Espinoza, the president and chief executive officer of La Causa. The La Causa center “is convenient, and he’s in good hands,” she said of Sammy.

La Causa runs a K-5 school with 250 children as well as the child- care center, which serves children from its own school as well as other local public schools.

Ms. Vanegas said she has the same trust in La Causa’s school as she has in the child-care center. La Causa has operated the school for 16 years in partnership with Milwaukee Public Schools, which has 97,300 students. Next fall, La Causa plans to convert the school to a public charter school.

Ms. Vanegas kept Sammy at the La Causa school even though someone had offered to pay for him to go to a private school. “I’d like him to continue at La Causa because they have bilingual [education],” she said.

The school, though, doesn’t have a strong academic reputation, as measured by standardized-test scores. While the math scores for 3rd graders at La Causa in 2001-2002 are the same as for other Hispanic 3rd graders in the Milwaukee public school system, scores for 4th graders in six subjects tested are considerably lower than for other Hispanic 4th graders as well as 4th graders overall in the school district.

Meeting Needs

When parents step inside the doors of La Causa, they can receive much more than schooling or care for their children.

The organization, which employs more than 400 people, offers job training, English-as-a-second-language classes, a business that imports and sells Mexican art, parenting classes, and case management for children who have been placed in foster homes.

At the child-care center, workers speak to the children in comforting tones. The children seem well-adjusted to daily routines.

On a recent afternoon, Sammy, a sturdy boy with a quick mind and an outgoing manner, is playing with Julia Lugo, who is 12. They quietly flip Barbie dolls into the air in a corner of a playroom while other children sit around low tables doing crossword puzzles or homework under the supervision of Yinaida Cordova, a woman of Puerto Rican heritage who grew up here and speaks mostly English to the children.

A number of parents, including Julia’s mom, stop by to pick up their children around 5 p.m.

At 6 p.m., when the night shift begins, Ms. Cordova moves the children to another room. Then, Yarissa Cruz Lazú, who arrived in the United States from Puerto Rico a year ago, takes charge of the children. She speaks to them mostly in Spanish.

Sammy chums up with Adriana Garcia, who is 10 and talkative. After working in a factory that makes wipes and towels, Adriana’s mother picks up Adriana and her two younger siblings every night at 11:30. Adriana’s father lives in Texas."I never get to play much time with my mom—only on the weekends,” Adriana says matter-of-factly.

At 6:15 p.m., the 15 or so 6- to 12-year-olds who are usually around for the night shift troop down to the basement of the building. Hispanic women dish up rice mixed with chicken, raisins, and beans. The children drink milk and crunch on fresh cucumbers, salad, and oranges.

Later in the evening, the group settles down to a couple of Walt Disney videos with holiday and winter themes. The room is quiet except for the background music of the video and occasional giggles from the children when the characters in the videos do something particularly silly.

By the time Sammy’s mother arrives at 8:30 p.m. to pick him up, the contingent of 6- to 12-year-olds is down to 12. The television has been turned off, the lights have been dimmed, and children have laid out mats on the floor and covered themselves with blankets to take a “nap” until Mom or Dad arrives to take them home.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2002 edition of Education Week as Late-Night Child Care Meets Needs Of Milwaukee Families

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