Kerryn Boogaard Kerryn Boogaard
Beverly Goldsmith Beverly Goldsmith
Zoe Bingley-Pullin Zoe Bingley-Pullin

Early childhood education and care in action:

Child care is complex, emotional and comes with a price tag wherever you live. But in New York, it also offers more than care.
By Anita Bulan
Date: January 19 2013
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Child care tends to go one of two ways in New York City: a nanny who becomes part of the family, charging upwards of $15 per hour (plus benefits, if you’re paying ‘on the books’ for the 40+ hour week), or daycare, an option with many variations in and of itself.

While daycare tends to be cheaper than a full-time nanny, it doesn’t seem to be the popular choice. A nanny affords you a level of flexibility; a daycare has rules you must follow, not the other way around. For example, it means parents must juggle their jobs with the hours of the business – there are no last-minute “I might be home a little late tonight!” calls to your child’s caregiver. It’s 6 PM (or whatever) and then the business lights are out...and calls to your cell phone are made.

With no alternative – her grandparents are more than 10,000 miles away – Lucia first began at daycare full time in the weeks after she turned one. It was local, and filled with friendly Russian caregivers (we straddled a predominantly Russian neighbourhood) and ethnically diverse kids from the area. We “lucked out”. At $900 per month, this place charged less than most. Plus it was within walking distance and now meant that as freelancers, my husband and I could get work done at home, which wasn’t happening with a toddler underfoot. And while we had hoped Lucia would only be there part-time, the school strongly encouraged against that, suggesting that the lack of continuity would make things difficult for her. Despite the long days, Lucia seemed happy and was flourished there.

When we moved to our current neighbourhood, we started the search all over again: What were the carers like? What of the other children? How long would it take to get there in the morning? What would it cost? Is this what we wanted for our child?

Lucia has been at her “school” now for a year and a half. It’s in Chinatown, and the fact that she gets to experience a dual language – English and Mandarin – learning environment is a bonus. And it’s certainly more of a school than daycare, although she still attends for a full day, from about 9.15am to 5.30pm, Monday to Friday.

She is with about ten other children of a similar age and two teachers who adore the kids. She was toilet trained at school, gets fed four meals a day there, sleeps next to her “friends forever!” each nap time, and has learned to write the alphabet and numbers. And she gets worksheets for homework. Daily. At age three. The first time she wrote “Lucia” on her own, I almost fell off my chair. This is what they do at this place, I had to remind myself.

I now work full time in an office, but I’m fortunate to be able to come and go whenever I need to for my child. Thanksgiving potluck at 3pm? I’ll be there. Count me in for that Christmas concert. I won’t miss it. In fact, Lucia would be devastated to miss it too. Every Saturday and Sunday starts with the same question: “Why isn’t there school on the weekends, mama?”

This year, we’re faced with another project: figuring out the New York City public school system. It’s often said that it’s a crazy, crazy world of applications, aggressive parents, long school tours and complicated paperwork. I didn’t believe it until now, as I’m starting to experience it. There are countless websites, consultants and businesses devoted to navigating childcare and NYC’s myriad schooling options. We are looking at schools that are in our “district” because that increases our chances of securing one of a handful of elusive “Pre-K” spots for four-year-olds. For example, one school has 36 seats in two classes for incoming kids. For those few seats alone, there are almost 600 applicants.

We’re still going through our list of school tours, aiming for a ranked list of eight preferred schools by April. We should find out in June if Lucia has been lucky enough to get a spot in “big school,” as she calls these local public schools. If she’s not, she may stay on where she is now.

In telling my sister (herself a primary school teacher) about the school tours and process of enrollment, she said, “Why don’t you just come back to Melbourne?” There was a pregnant pause before I replied.

“No. Figuring this all out is part of our adventure.”

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