Commuting To Class — With the Kids

Busy student parents can count on affordale, high-quality child care programs — not just babysitting — on many CUNY campuses.

By Richard Firstman

Early on the first morning of the new semester, Ebonie Council leaves her apartment in Flushing and navigates her three children under age 5 — to Long Island City, an eight-mile trip that takes an hour and a half by subway and bus. They walk the last three blocks to LaGuardia Community College, where Council delivers her brood to the college’s Early Childhood Learning Center before finally getting to her first class of the day.

Ebonie Council and her three children under age 5 commute to LaGuardia via mass transit.

In Upper Manhattan on the same morning, Vern Ballard, 43, who’s both a senior staff member and senior philosophy major at City College, pedals to campus on a bicycle with his two small daughters happily trailing in a child carrier. They arrive at the old brick house that once served as the college president’s residence, long since transformed into its Child Development Center, where Olivia and Lucia will spend the day learning to read and getting their first tastes of science and math.

CCNY staffer/student Vern Ballard pedals to school with his two small daughters.

On Staten Island, meanwhile, 3-year-old Tyler James can’t wait to get back to school — at the College of Staten Island. She attends the college’s Children’s Center while her mother, Alicia, a 34-year-old Army veteran, works on her political science degree.

On any given day across the city, some 1,400 children attend preschool and other programs at campus child care centers that allow their parents — CUNY students — to attend school themselves. Some campuses provide day care for infants and toddlers and about half have after-school programs for older children. And for the student parents, they are vital: Few could manage college and child rearing without the highly subsidized fees of the campus child care centers, which range from $11 to $25 for a full day.

“Private day care can cost a thousand dollars a month,” says Alicia James. “Here it’s $524 for the whole semester. I wouldn’t be in school without it.”

But if you ask James or any other student parent about the difference between CUNY’s childcare centers and any of the typical private daycare options, cost is rarely the first thing they mention. It’s the quality of the programs — to many, a revelation after paying steep fees to private day care operators of varying quality or enlisting family members.

“What I love about it is that my daughter is actually learning,” says James. “When I had her in day care, I would pick her up and they would have her in a high chair in front of the TV. Here, she’s with teachers, in a classroom. This isn’t babysitting. She’s constantly engaged, and she loves it.”

CUNY has long been at the forefront of campus child care: In 1972, City College and Bronx Community College opened two of the first programs of their kind in the country. Forty years later, almost symbolically, Bronx Community is now home to the newest center, a modern free-standing building that opened last fall. Another new facility is under construction at Lehman College.

The campus centers run largely independent of each other but are tied together by the 19 campus directors who form the CUNY Child Care Council. They were traditionally coordinated by a central office budget specialist, but now they are led by a director from their ranks: Betty Pearsall, a veteran early childhood educator who headed the centers at Queens and York Colleges before being elevated to University director in 2009.

CUNY’s support signals a recognition of the value of campus child care to a significant student population: older, “nontraditional” students whose ranks have been growing with the unemployment rate, changing demographics and the influx of veterans on CUNY campuses. It’s helped the University grow into a national leader in child care on college campuses. Pearsall, for instance, is president of the National Coalition for Campus Children’s Centers.

According to data Pearsall has been compiling, CUNY’s student parents are typically in their late 20s and early 30s and are either starting or returning to college after being in the workforce and having children. “Many lost their jobs and are retraining,” says Pearsall. “We’re seeing our largest influx at the community colleges.”

Betty Pearsall at York College's child care center, which she formerly directed.

CUNY and its colleges recognize how valuable, even critical, the child care centers are to students who are trying to take care of their children, their school work and often a part-time job too. “It really is tied to student success,” says Pearsall — but the government assistance that keeps quality up and fees down is perennially at risk. A few years ago, the state drastically cut its subsidy to the child care child care centers, and federal subsidies for low-income students have been cut by a third over the past two years, requiring CUNY to make up the shortfall to avoid raising fees to levels many could not afford. The state still funds $2.7 million a year (and the city $500,000) but, says Pearsall, “it’s always tenuous.” That’s why student parents — such as Council, Ballard and James — have formed an advocacy network that makes a bus trip to Albany each winter to visit state legislators and officials.

The child care centers range in enrollment, facilities and hours — from campuses with limited space that are licensed by the city for only a few dozen children to a college such as LaGuardia, whose spacious quarters in the lower level of one of its main buildings allow it to care for 240, from infants to 11-year-olds. (It also has an unusual amenity: Conveniently located down the hall from the college’s pool, the center has exclusive hours to teach preschoolers to swim.)

Each campus child center is staffed by teachers certified in early-childhood education who play a unique role in the lives of this unusual group: students with far more responsibility than other students and parents under far more stress than most. It tends to forge bonds that would be unusual in private day care.

Ebonie Council, who wants to become a teacher herself, recalls the day last fall when her arduous commute with three children under 5 made her late for a final exam — in her early-childhood education class. “My youngest, Jaden, just wouldn’t walk and I didn’t have a stroller. It took two hours on the train and the bus, and I was half an hour late for the final. I ran the three blocks to the building, and they grabbed all the kids and said, ‘Go, go!’ ” I got to the class and burst into tears. But the teacher let me take the final and I got an 86.”

Variations of that scene of struggle and determination play out at all the campus child centers. “We’re teachers and the children come first,” says Jitinder Walia, executive director of the Bronx Community College Early Childhood Center. “But we’re also social workers and therapists and everything in between. A parent came to me crying because she didn’t have money to buy food. I said, ‘Nobody in my building goes without food. We have a food program.’ These are people who have real lives, real problems. And real successes. And we are part of that.”

LaGuardia's pool has exclusive hours for teaching preschoolers to swim.

That pride, and the genuine thrill many staff members feel when the parents of their young charges excel academically, has Pearsall and the Child Care Council planning a new tradition: an annual ceremony recognizing the highest-achieving student parents from each center.

The campus childcare centers even benefit students without children. They provide opportunities for practical experience and academic fieldwork — for education students, naturally, but also in areas such as psychology, social work, speech and audiology. “Even some you wouldn’t think,” says Pearsall. “We had fashion students at Queens College and architecture students working with our City College director on renovations. So we’re blessed because we’re on college campuses so we have extra hands, and we’re contributing to the educational mission of the University.”

And there turns out to be some collateral benefits for the children. “The idea of college becomes real to them,” says Pearsall. “They think they’re going to college. When I was at Queens, the kids would say, ‘I go to Queens College.’ We’ve had children grow up and return as students themselves.”

Birth of Campus Child Care

In 1972, an idea came to a group of Bronx Community College students who were trying to get through school while raising small children: Why not have a child care center on campus? They got some money from the city, persuaded the faculty to give up their lounge and hired a teacher named Charlotte Bellamy away from a private school in Manhattan.

Charlotte Bellamy pays a recent visit to the child care center she pioneered at Bronx Community College.

The BCC child care center opened with 22 children — toddlers and preschoolers and a few kindergartners. It was joined around the same time by a similar center at City College, and the idea of child care for student parents at CUNY was born.

“It was a new phenomenon,” Bellamy recalls. “I think the only other on-campus child care in those days was at the University of Chicago, which was a lab school for research purposes.”

Over the next couple of years, Bellamy’s enrollment more than doubled, and the only space available to accommodate the expansion was in a building off campus. Then, in 1976, the center — and those that had since opened at other CUNY colleges — lost their funding amid the city’s fiscal crisis.

Bellamy and her counterpart at City College, Geraldine Price, became tireless fundraisers, going door to door to various city agencies, the college presidents and student governments to scrape together enough money to keep the child care centers running. Finally — together with CUNY, the Childcare Council and student parents — they were able to get money from the state, putting in place a funding structure that largely continues to this day.

Following a budget request by the late Chancellor Joseph S. Murphy in the mid-1980s for childcare at CUNY campuses, the legislature and New York City Council responded affirmatively. The one thing Bellamy was unable to accomplish was her dream to bring the BCC child care center back onto campus — and in a new building. “I worked on that for about 10 years,” she said. “The money would be there and then it wouldn’t.” She retired in 1997. But her successors carried on her dream, and more than a decade later the money finally came through.

Last fall, the first child care center at CUNY became the newest — a gem among the network of campus child care centers that now number 22.

Close supervision in and between classes is the rule at CUNY child care centers.