Early Childhood

Indiana high school senior to U.S. Secretary of Education: Help me get to college

Rosa Ramos Ochoa, a senior at Ben Davis University High School, was sure she had earned a scholarship under Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars program, which can provide students with up to four years of college tuition if they meet certain goals, because she finally had a Social Security number.

But it didn’t matter, she told U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan during his visit to Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis.

Even though she was such a successful high school student who earned 72 college credits — enough to qualify as a junior in her first year — Ochoa can’t manage to get in-state tuition. It doesn’t matter that she has lived in Indiana since she was 1-year-old. She is still considered undocumented, and that’s all that matters.

“I lost it because I’m not a U.S. citizen,” Ochoa said. “I applied three times before I actually got accepted to 21st Century Scholars. The last time I was in eighth grade, and I really wanted to make a change because my mom works in a warehouse, and she’s had a hard time, and I don’t want to struggle like that in my future.”

Ochoa’s story illustrates a problem Duncan sees across the country, he said.

“It’s honestly one of the biggest frustrations the president and I have,” Duncan said. “We have so many students who have basically lived here all their lives … and to see you do all that hard work and we’re going to deny you the right to go to college? We’re cutting off our nose to spite our face.”

The problems of undocumented students came up more than once as Duncan met with Ochoa and 15 other Marion County students at Crispus Attucks. The education secretary earlier this year criticized Indiana for excluding undocumented students from the state’s On My Way PreK program.

“We have far too many students, particularly from disadvantaged communities, who start kindergarten a year to a year-and-a-half behind,” he said. “I’m happy we’re seeing more governors invest in this, but having said that, there is still a tremendous unmet need. One is the lack of funding for undocumented students.”

During the student panel discussion, one high school student after another told stories about community service, college goals and changes they’d like to see in the city.

“We are being the change by providing 300 bags of food each week for elementary school students,” said Sam Varie, a senior from Lawrence Central High School. “We’re showing peers the importance of serving people in need.”

Ochoa is part of a schoolwide effort to raise money to send a Guatemalan student to high school. It is not free in Guatemala like it is in the U.S.

For her part, Ochoa is determined to continue her studies despite challenges in her past — the move from Mexico as a baby, a father who went to prison, a single mom whose only option was to work hard with little reprieve and next to no money for school.

She holds down a job after school, as well, working at a call center. She manages to do her homework while she’s there. She hopes to study nursing and become a neonatal nurse who helps take care of babies in the intensive care unit after they are born.

“It’s kind of hard — it’s not being punished — but now come other things, sometimes, because of decisions they made, not me,” Ochoa said.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Mike Pence has said Indiana took cues from rules for other federal grant programs when it denied undocumented poor children access to the state’s new preschool tuition aid pilot program.

Duncan says that’s absurd — and it needs to change.

“We want to continue to challenge that,” Duncan said. “It’s a wrong reading of the … statute. So we’re hoping Indiana does the right thing and fixes it. I don’t know of another state that’s both expanding access and denying opportunity. That’s a conflict of values that we will always challenge and never support.”

As for Ochoa, she is hoping to get private scholarships to send her to college. She’s applying for many, and she’s already been accepted to Marion University and IUPUI. Before she could even walk off the stage tonight, she was already being approached by adults from organizations across the city who wanted to help her.

Wayne Township Superintendent Jeff Butts said Ochoa is not the only student in the district with such a story.

He turned to her after the panel, listing her accomplishments — Indiana high school student, academic honors diploma, associate’s degree from Vincennes University — but he said it with an air of disbelief because come graduation in June, it doesn’t make a difference.

Ochoa said other students don’t realize quite how fortunate they are to get more choices about how to pay for school.

“So it’s practically like I’ve never been here, but I’ve been here this whole time,” she said. “Even though I wasn’t born here, I’d like the same opportunity they have.”

side effects

After an early childhood overhaul, paying families are bringing diversity to some New York City child care centers

PHOTO: Janie Ziye Shen
A door at the Magical Years early childhood center in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, welcomes families in four languages.

When New York City reduced funding for the Magical Years child care center in 2012, staff there lobbied to gain back the seats they would have to cut.

Their effort fell short, so they turned to another funding stream: families in the neighborhood, Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, who were desperate for high-quality child care spots and who could pay for it.

Today, Magical Years is a vibrant space with toddlers singing songs in Spanish, Chinese, and English, and with a waitlist numbering in the hundreds. At any given time, nearly two thirds of infants and toddlers come through the city’s child care system, bringing in as much as $425 a week in city funding; the rest are from families that pay $250 a week for their spots.

In a city where early childhood programs are highly segregated by race and class, Magical Years suggests that the city’s recent early childhood overhaul might inadvertently have laid the groundwork for integration.

Families who might otherwise never brush elbows actively mingle and learn from one another At Magical Years, said Ann Goa, the center’s former director, adding, “We can see the connection and communication that parents have” with each other.

The changes at Magical Years represent an unintended consequence of a massive overhaul to how the city manages early childhood education, known as EarlyLearn. While there have never been many slots for infants in subsidized child care centers, the initiative reduced those spaces even more. The city started sending more children younger than 3 into less expensive programs run out of providers’ homes and paying some existing child care centers for fewer spots.

Like Magical Years, a handful of other centers in that position who were also in gentrifying neighborhoods responded by actively recruiting local paying families to help supplement the lost revenue. As a result, some, but not all, have created rare oases of integration — something that research suggests benefits poorer students and doesn’t harm other students.

Across the city, it’s unclear exactly how many paying families are sending children to child care centers that are otherwise city-funded. The city does not track this number, which is likely to be small because there are relatively few subsidized centers that serve infants, and many of those are in very high-poverty neighborhoods with few families able to pay for care.

PHOTO: Janie Ziye Shen

But where this dynamic has played out, it has had an impact. At Magical Years, typically 14 of 42 seats are filled with paying customers, some of them employees at NYU Langone, the large health and social service organization that oversees Magical Years.

Magical Years places toddlers whose families pay privately in the same classrooms with children whose families are in EarlyLearn, paving the way for socioeconomic and racial integration.

But other centers funnel children from private-paying families into classrooms separate from their EarlyLearn classes.

At a Friends of Crown Heights center in the gentrifying Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, for example, a handful of  infant and toddler rooms are reserved primarily for “private pay” families. These rooms appear to be more racially diverse than other rooms in the center.

Center administrators — who operate 20 early childhood programs under a $42 million contract with the city — explain that the decision was largely driven by a desire to simplify bookkeeping. Different funding sources come with different regulations, they say, so it is easiest to group all children whose spots are paid in the same way together.

If a city representative wants to see the medical records of all the children in the EarlyLearn program, for instance, having those children in one classroom makes it easier for the center to comply, according to the administrators.

“It is for accounting purposes,” said Hugh Hamilton, director of program development. Hamilton adds that when the children at their centers play outside, staff at Friends of Crown Heights say, kids of all backgrounds come together.

To some researchers who study early childhood education, this approach is a mistake.

“Programs that are segregated by race/ethnicity and income are rarely, if ever, of equal quality,” write Jeanne Reid and Sharon Kagan of the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia University in their 2016 report, “A Better Start: Why Classroom Diversity Matters in Early Education.”

As the city takes an increasing interest in both early childhood education and integration, people who have experienced the wrenching changes that affected Magical Years are debating how spots for poor children should be handled.

Vaughan Toney, president of Friends of Crown Heights, says he’d like to see the city reinstate all of the subsidized infant slots lost during the EarlyLearn transition. Families with the means to pay privately, he says, have other options, while some low-income families that his organization serves have to travel to Friends of Crown Heights centers because their neighborhoods have no early childhood centers.

Kathleen Hopkins, vice president of NYU Langone’s community programs, has a different take. Though Magical Years’ private-pay slots reap far less revenue than the subsidized ones, Hopkins says the center wouldn’t want to switch those slots back to city-funded ones and risk losing the diversity that exists now.

“Families share strengths and assets and learn different cultural beliefs and value systems, and that just enriches the environment for the children,” she said.

Hopkins said she would rather see the center expand to make space for more of everything — more subsidized and more private slots. “Segregated centers are never a good thing,” she said.

This story is adapted from a forthcoming report by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School that looks at subsidized infant and toddler child care.

A new floor

Colorado’s new minimum wage means raises for child care workers and tuition increases for parents

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Loveland's Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center was one of the first two centers in the state to get a Level 5 rating in the Colorado Shines rating system.

Child care teachers and assistants absolutely deserve the raises that come from Colorado’s new minimum wage of $10.20 an hour, their bosses say, but the pay increases also mean that many providers will pass on the new expenses to tuition-paying parents already stretched thin by child care costs.

“I don’t know how much more parents can pay,” said Diane Price, who heads a nonprofit network of seven centers in Colorado Springs.

In some parts of the state, early childhood advocates also worry that the raises mandated by the minimum wage hike will cause some workers to lose public benefits by pushing their income just above the eligibility threshold — making it harder, not easier to make ends meet.

In a field working to professionalize its ranks, pay its workers more, and raise awareness about the educational and economic value of quality child care, many observers say the minimum wage increase is a step in the right direction.

“It’s an important move,” said Christi Chadwick, director of the “Transforming the Early Childhood Workforce” project at the nonprofit Early Milestones Colorado. “The thing I struggle with is we’re still not getting people out of poverty and paying them on par with the public school system.”

Price, the president and CEO of Early Connections Learning Centers, said, “Shame on us that we even have to have this discussion that early educators are in a category that pays minimum wage.”

The latest minimum wage increase, which took effect Jan. 1, is the second of four annual increases mandated by a ballot measure approved by Colorado voters in 2016. The last step of the phase-in process will boost the minimum wage to $12 in 2020.

Colorado is among 29 states — most in the northeast and west — that have set a minimum wage higher than the federal rate of $7.25 an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Child care providers here say advance planning and clear communication with parents have helped them incorporate raises into their budgets.

Price, who raised tuition slightly at her centers last August, said she anticipates a budget hit of about $600,000 over the four-year phase-in period.

But that’s not just because her lowest paid staff members are getting raises to comply with the minimum wage law. Like many other child care directors, she’s giving raises across the board out of fairness to veteran employees.

Price said she didn’t want entry-level employees to catch up with those who already hav a Child Development Associate credential or an associate’s degree.

Heather Griffith, who leads the for-profit Young Peoples Learning Center in Fort Collins, is taking the same approach. Her whole staff, except two brand new employees, have received raises.

She’s already sent out a letter notifying parents that tuition will go up 6.5 percent on February 1 – that’s an additional $16 a week for a full-time preschool slot. It’s the second of three tuition hikes Griffith will institute during the minimum wage phase-in period.

While the higher costs are hard on parents, “it’s a lot tougher for these teachers to survive on non-livable wages,” Griffith said. “I’m 100 percent in support of this minimum wage hike.”

Griffith hasn’t gotten much pushback over the impending tuition increase. The thriving economy helps. Also, she said, parents like the care her centers provide and wouldn’t be able to find it for much less unless they switched to unlicensed care, which is mostly unregulated.

Anne Lance, who heads the non-profit Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center in northern Colorado, said she began planning — and frontloading — wage increases for all staff shortly after the 2016 ballot measure passed.
Currently, her entry-level teaching assistants start at $10.50 an hour even though she’s only required to pay $10.20.

“I had to get way ahead of the game … so in a couple years when it gets closer to that $12, it’s not going to kill me,” said Lance, who operates one center in Loveland and one in Fort Collins.

While the center’s two sites serve many low-income children who qualify for state child care subsidies or state-funded preschool slots, there are some tuition-paying families in the mix, too.

It’s those parents who may feel the sting of the minimum wage increases over the next couple years. Lance said she’ll keep her tuition increases to a modest 3 percent this year, but may have to jump up to 5 percent in 2019 and 2020.

On average, lead teachers with several years of experience at Teaching Tree make about $13.50 an hour. While that’s above the minimum wage, it’s not much to live on for employees on their own or those who are single parents, Lance said.

In Colorado, about one-third of child care teachers qualify for some kind of public assistance to cover housing, food, health insurance, or child care costs, according to a 2017 survey of child care workers in the state.

Chadwick, of Early Milestones, said during visits last fall to the San Luis Valley and southeastern Colorado, early childhood leaders explained that some child care workers were quitting their jobs due to fears they would lose government benefits when minimum wage-related raises took effect.

To alleviate such concerns and make child care a profession that pays a living wage, more substantial raises are needed. But Chadwick and other leaders don’t expect further funding to come from a state-level effort.

Instead, they say it will be locally-funded initiatives — already underway in some Colorado communities — that pick up the slack.

“We have to pass things like mill levies and taxes that support early childhood,” said Griffith, of Young Peoples Learning Center. “We have to do it. We have to say yes to these things if what we want is a community that has educated kids ready to go into kindergarten.”