Waiting for Daycare

The Parent-Infant Center in West Philadelphia has a waiting list of more than 100 babies for its infant care.

That's right, 100 babies.

It might be easier to get into college.

Here's a column on the shortage of top daycare in West Philadelphia and Center City.

Karen Heller: So many kids, so little day care

By Karen Heller

Inquirer Columnist

Lucky Sylvia Landis! After 15 months on a nearly endless waiting list, she was admitted to the school of her choice.

Not law or medical school but the Parent-Infant Center, a veritable Louvre of finger paintings in West Philadelphia celebrating its 30th anniversary next week.

Sylvia is 20 months old. Her mother, Hien Lu, began looking at day-care programs - oh, let's be honest - "before I was pregnant."

When Lu was expecting for all of one month, she registered "Baby Landis" at PIC and six other city day-care programs.

Currently, more than 100 babies are waiting for spaces at PIC. That's right, 100.

Many panicked parents call monthly. Most babies, like Faith Applegate, never get off the infant list. "We registered when she was a month old," says her mother, Binh. "She didn't get in until this fall."

Faith is 51/2.


Baby-care blues

Situated in a former Episcopal divinity school, PIC serves 230 children, from ages 6 weeks to 5 years. Waiting lists exist for every age group.

A 3 percent spike in city-born babies last year alone can't explain the increased demand all centers are experiencing. More affluent families have settled in the urban core, West Philadelphia (the Applegates), Northern Liberties (Sylvia and her parents), and Queen Village.

Parents often opt to place infants and young children at centers near their offices. (Once children are in kindergarten, the focus shifts toward home.) Some programs pull from five counties.

The shortage can be attributed in part to cost. Building rents can be prohibitive. Top staff is hard to retain without proper pay and benefits.

An informal survey of five West Philadelphia day-care centers found 700 names on the combined waiting lists. Many are duplicates, but still . . .

Getting into college may prove easier.

Funkids at Fourth and Market? For Wachovia employees only. Penn Children's Center? Ninety percent of the 179 spots are reserved for university employees. For younger infants, there's a waiting list of 18 months to 24 months. Same is true at the Montgomery Infant Friendship Center in West Philadelphia. How can any parent be that prescient? By the time babies get in, they're no longer babies.

Top programs, like PIC, Penn, the Caring Center and the Infant Friendship Center, have approval from the National Association for the Education of Young Children as well as four Keystone stars, the highest rating from the state's Department of Public Welfare.

There are 35 NAEYC-accredited centers in the city. In West Philadelphia and Center City, seven.


Cries for care

And they're costly, too, especially for infants and toddlers who require more staff. Child care is the inverse of private-school tuition, going down as a child ages.

University employees pay $323 weekly for full-time infant care at Penn's Children Center. PIC charges $1,415 monthly, though many children attend part-time.

That's almost $17,000 annually, $5,500 more than Temple tuition.

Why not hire a sitter? "With a nanny, you're dependent on one person," says Lu. With licensed child care, parents qualify for tax credits and employee flex spending.

Last autumn, PIC's director of 25 years, Marni Sweet, died after a short, brutal battle with brain cancer. Parents and alumni parents raised funds for an appropriate tribute. They planted a dozen Winter King Hawthorn trees lining 42d Street, each adorned with a tag sporting Sweet's photograph.

Director Cynthia Roberts hopes to expand Sweet's vision. A building on PIC's campus, owned by Penn and empty for years, requiring at least $1.5 million to renovate, could accommodate 50 more students.

Which Roberts could find within hours.


Contact staff writer Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.