Like hundreds of other parents in the Haverford School District, Allyson Groff depends on the early-learning program run out of the Brookline School building, where her 3-year-old spends part of his day in a preschool while she and her husband go to work.
That’s why Groff and other Haverford Township parents say they’re alarmed by news that the district plans to close the aging facility by July 1, and frustrated by the lack of any progress in finding a new home for the child-care program operator, Family Support Services.
“We’re really scrambling. There’s not a lot of programs, actually, in Havertown," said Groff, who, like many parents in the Delaware County suburb, had also sent her older son to Brookline’s K-Club, which fills the gap created by the district’s half-day kindergarten. Just this week, the Haverford YMCA said it would offer a supplemental kindergarten program.
Haverford’s immediate dilemma shines a bright spotlight on the broader problems that many communities around the Philadelphia region and the country are experiencing, as demand for child care continues to skyrocket yet spaces remain limited. Program operators say they struggle to hire staff in a tight job market and to find adequate facilities.
Even Laura Saccente, director of the Pennsylvania Statewide Afterschool/Youth Development Network that advocates for child-care programs, said it’s a struggle to get after-school care for her own children – she and her neighbors in Camp Hill, near Harrisburg, have had to get up at 3 or 4 a.m. to stand in a line to guarantee a slot.
Saccente cited a study called the America After 3 P.M. report – last conducted in 2014 – that found a huge unmet need for after-school child care in Pennsylvania. That survey found more than 800,000 children across the state would enroll in a program if one were available, and experts agree the crunch has grown worse in the five years since then.
“It’s definitely a bit of a crisis,” said Ann O’Brien, CEO of Montgomery Early Learning Centers, referring to the workforce issues. Her firm operates child-care programs within the Colonial and -- until this year -- the Lower Merion Area School Districts. Colonial typically has long wait lists every fall, as do many other districts, she said.
O’Brien cited overlapping problems – finding available space within communities that also have rising classroom enrollments, school hours “that are like farm days” and don’t mesh with modern work hours, and hiring enough qualified staff in a time of near-record low joblessness.
“The unemployment rate is so low, you can’t find the help,” agreed Tracie Costello, CEO of A Child’s Place, a large child-care company with 315 employees operating in five Chester County districts. She said “75 percent of the job” right now is recruiting new employees. That jibes with national reports that child-care centers – traditionally known for low-pay on a level with parking-lot attendants or dog walkers – are now developing incentives to attract new workers, especially in urban areas where two-income parents and demand for high-quality enrichment programs are the norm.
Some parents say the need for child care in the Haverford area is so great – and the problems that would be caused if Family Support Services can’t find a new location to operate are so dire – they’re taking matters into their own hands, scouting out local churches and other potential sites. In addition to K-Club and preschool, the operator offers a summer camp. Pre- and after-school care are housed in elementary schools, though space limitations have created a shortage of slots.
Rex Carney, a spokesperson for the nonprofit Elwyn, which operates Family Support Services, said in a statement: “Elwyn has been operating these programs for years, and we understand their importance in the community. We are proud of the services we provide and value our working relationship with the families and school district. We are working diligently to find a solution to the situation.”
Haverford, as a prosperous suburb where public school enrollment has been on the rise, typifies many of the national trends. Officials and parents agree the district’s crowded schools – with modular classrooms at some elementary schools to handle the overflow – simply don’t have space to meet all of their families' child-care needs.
School district officials have warned for some time that the Brookline facility, a former school built in 1913, had grown too expensive to maintain and was on its last legs. Nonetheless, a preliminary vote Monday by Haverford Township commissioners to purchase the building on Earlington Road from the district for $1 with plans to demolish it – possibly to become a park or new library location – sent shock waves among parents.
In a Jan. 16 letter to parents, Family Support Services said that the Brookline facility would close on July 1 and that “we are diligently searching for an appropriate, convenient and cost-effective building in Havertown.” However, it warned that “we may have to close the program” if a suitable location can’t be found.
“As a parent, what’s frustrating right now, I am feeling there is a lack of urgency,” said Lindsey Smith, mother of a kindergartner and a special-education teacher at Haverford Middle School. She has been actively pressing Family Support Services and Elwyn to locate a new site within Haverford to ensure the program stays open.
Several parents said they’ve been especially frustrated by the hands-off approach taken by the school district, especially since it’s Haverford’s policy to provide only half-day kindergarten that makes the K-Club such an essential service.
“The maintenance and facilities needs of the building require a substantial investment of funds the district simply does not have,” School Superintendent Maureen Reusche told a Jan. 17 board meeting after a number of parents raised their concerns. She said that the district hopes Family Support Services can find a new location but that it also has been in touch with another possible provider and will update a list of other options on its website.
Indeed, the dilemma created by the imminent shutdown of the Brookline location shows how parents consider child care an essential service and yet no government entity is required to provide it.
“From the township perspective, this is an unfortunate situation for parents, and we’re very sympathetic and we’re willing to offer any assistance we can provide,” said Haverford Commissioner Kevin McCloskey, who has met with parents.
The father of three noted he faces his own issue when his youngest son enrolls in half-day kindergarten next year, but he said the township is only “a peripheral player” in the child-care issue. “This isn’t really our fight, or our decision,” he said.
As a result, there are ad hoc efforts by parents such as Smith to visit local churches or look at other potential spaces where the programs could relocate once Brookline is closed. She said she’s also talked to Family Support Services about filming a short video about the programs, which she praised, so others “can see how wonderful they are and they can show it to other potential leads and the school board.”