It’s clear that Israel Cortes and his wife Jessie took great care when they opened Blue Cups Café in Woodside, Queens just two months ago. It isn’t very large — there’s one bar along the wall with stools and an alcove in the back with embankment seating around a single table — but the atmosphere is immediately welcoming. The lights are bright; the counters clean. A chandelier made of clear and blue coffee cups dangles from the ceiling, and the sink in the bathroom looks like a giant ceramic mug.
Israel, a young, handsome man with gelled dark hair, now owns two businesses, the first being a barber shop that he opened while his daughter, a shy seven-year-old, was still in preschool. He credits that preschool with his ability to start his entrepreneurial ventures. He’s been cutting hair since he was 15 but when they first had their daughter, Jessie decided to stay home to care for her because she wouldn’t have made enough money to cover the cost of childcare. Israel worked days as a dishwasher at Boston Market for a few years, getting home at midnight, before getting back into working at a barber shop. Sometimes they were able to leave their daughter with family, but it wasn’t reliable.
Then when their daughter was four, Jessie decided she wanted to “go out there, do something,” she said. Through a friend at a park she learned of a Head Start center in her neighborhood run by the Child Center of New York. Her family’s finances and location qualified them for the program and she was able to leave her daughter at the school for $13 a week. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I can do this, I can go to work to get a little money and still afford childcare,’” she said.
When it’s continuous support, every day, you know your kid has a place to go, that really makes a difference.
Without such an opportunity, she could have ended up paying more than $10,000 a year to put her four-year-old in a daycare center. Families who don’t qualify for Head Start –- they have to live below the poverty line –- or can’t find an opening can sometimes get subsidies to cover the cost, but spending on those subsidies is at a decade low and there are long waiting lists in many states.
That high-quality, stable source of care changed their lives. “When it’s continuous support, every day, you know your kid has a place to go, that really makes a difference,” Israel said. “I used that time to push myself, to work, and try to get somewhere.” That support and his wife’s extra income meant he could focus on striking out on his own. “I was more relaxed. When you’re so tense, you can’t really think,” he said. “I didn’t have the weight of [wondering] where are my children going to be… It allowed me to think clearly and to actually plan something.”
Too many American parents miss out on that peace of mind, however. In 2011, the most recent data, nearly 40 percent of families had no regular childcare arrangement for children under five. And even those who had a regular arrangement might not have found a great one. Just 5.6 percent were in a Head Start or other school program. More than 40 percent of those arrangements were with a family member; 7.6 percent got care out of someone else’s home. The majority of the country’s childcare programs offer care that is only rated fair, according to a 2007 survey, with less than 10 percent providing high-quality care.
“Families may end up using unregulated care because they can’t find licensed care or they can’t afford licensed care,” said Sara Mead, a principal at Bellwether Education Partners. “A lot of families use unlicensed friend and neighbor care, particularly low-income families.”
Regular preschool allowed Israel to start talking to clients and potential investors, and he eventually got them to give him the funds to start his own shop. He paid them back two years ago and proudly notes that he’s now “managing on my own.”
Meanwhile, once her daughter was in preschool, Jessie started working in a coffee place as an assistant manager and has stayed in the field until now, when she gets to run her own shop. Her pleasure in taking orders and brewing coffees is evident in her huge smile as she chats with the locals who come into the shop. “I’ve been practically 15 years getting ready for this new adventure,” she said. “I love the business, I love customer service, so I guess I’m in the right place.”
Israel credits Head Start with opening these doors for his family. “I do consider myself a go-getter, I’m pretty sure there would have been other options. But…Head Start was my way in. It definitely was.”
The Woodside Head Start program in New York City, known formally as The Ficalora Family Foundation Head Start Center, may not strike visitors as a childcare center when they walk in. It feels like a school and its programming is educational. Students have cubbies for their belongings and books line the shelves. Art projects decorate the walls. But all of the students are ages three and four, and it’s a common experience that families who get a slot see opportunities unfurl before them from having somewhere reliable to leave their children.
Lorena Ramirez, now one of the center’s teachers, was one of those parents. Before she had regular care for her son, she was taking classes toward earning her degree in early childhood education at night and she had to postpone the required internship to get classroom experience in order to be with her son during the day. Then she got him into the Head Start center.
It was a peace of mind having a place where you know your child is safe, meanwhile you pursue your goals.
“It was a peace of mind having a place where you know your child is safe, meanwhile you pursue your goals,” she said. Ramirez was able to complete her internship and her degree and jumped at the chance to fill an open teaching slot at the center that had helped her.
Marie Mason, the educational director at the center, noted that many families may need other services before they can work, particularly as the Woodside program has many undocumented parents. New parents “probably wouldn’t even be thinking about looking for a job because they just needed other things first,” she said. But getting connected with the center can open other opportunities. “Now they can work, and they can rest assured that their children will be well taken care of.”
One measure of Woodside’s impact may be, perversely, how few get to experience its benefits. The center has nearly 300 children on the waiting list for just 85 slots, including both three- and four-year-olds. The families who get turned away have few other options, as there aren’t any other Head Start programs in the area. “I don’t really know what they do,” Mason said. “They don’t work, or they have to depend on family and friends… Unfortunately, they might be making poor choices in terms of what they’re doing with their children.” Meanwhile, Woodside has just 26 slots for three-year-olds and there are even fewer Early Head Start centers for children ages zero to three, so parents have few places to turn for the first three years of their children’s lives.
Families in New York City are luckier than most around the country, however. One of the big campaign promises from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was to create a universal preschool program, and this coming school year the administration is promising a spot for every four-year-old, free of cost. Last fall, most of the programs completely booked up and 53,000 children enrolled; this year, they expect 70,000. Nearly 22,000 families applied on the first day of enrollment in March.
Those programs don’t necessarily come with Child Center of New York’s other services, nor do they last all day or all year. “The full day [for the city’s universal preschools] is six hours and 20 minutes, so that might not meet everybody’s needs,” Mason pointed out. Meanwhile, they shut down for two months in the summer, leaving parents to pay for camps if they need somewhere to send their children. And the universal promise doesn’t extend below age four.
New York City isn’t the only place experimenting with universal preschool; nine states have passed programs, although many of them have not actually delivered on that promise. Only Florida, Oklahoma, and Vermont have more than 70 percent of their four year olds enrolled in programs funded by the state. President Obama wants the entire country’s parents to get the benefit and has proposed creating a national universal preschool program. But so far Republicans in Congress haven’t taken him up on it.
In the meantime, there are few federal preschool programs. Head Start is the main one, meaning most of the money centers rely on comes straight from Washington. Its long-term benefits for children have been hotly debated, with evidence on both sides. An influential 2012 report from the Department of Health and Human Services found little lasting effects in later grades. Yet critics have pointed to flaws in the study, and other studies have found lasting benefits.
Either way, Woodside’s own data shows that its high-quality approach benefits children as well as helping parents, raising the share of three-year-olds meeting expectations from a third at the beginning of the year to 100 percent by the end. But it costs money. Child Center of New York’s three early childhood programs, including the center in Woodside, rely on a direct government contract of nearly $1 million and another $3.6 million from the New York Administration for Child Services, but those only cover 80 percent of what it needs to comply with Head Start requirements. So it gets additional city funding and grants from private foundations.
Families like Israel’s attest to the benefits of Woodside’s approach. His son also attended the center, where they found that he had a developmental delay that later became classified as a speech disability. “If he had never went to Head Start, maybe to regular daycare, we might have not really noticed the issue he had with his speech,” he noted. The school was also able to get him intervention and work with him on the disability. Today he’s in first grade. “Right now his tests, they’re all like 100s, 90s,” Israel noted with pride.
Rey Pastor has also seen the educational benefits of Head Start, which have in turn benefitted her. A slender woman who talks quietly, Pastor doesn’t speak a lot of English, but now that he’s in the school her youngest son can act as her interpreter. “When I go to stores, sometimes I don’t understand, and he explains things to me in Spanish,” she said, speaking in Spanish.
Head Start also means Pastor is able to get the classes she needs to get a job. “Before [Head Start], I couldn’t do many things,” she said, given that she has two young children. It was hard just to leave the house with them. Afterward, she had time to get a job and learn English, and soon she plans to take the GED. She eventually wants to find work as a cashier or waitress.
It’s not just about childcare. Woodside has a variety of wraparound services: its Parent Corps program that holds regular parenting workshops, screenings for domestic violence and depression, and help connecting with jobs, public benefits, counseling, and other resources. Many of the parents that come to the center are undocumented immigrants who have few stable employment opportunities to begin with, but without childcare it’s even harder for both parents or single parents to work. They may need some of those other supports — like getting connected to English or GED classes — before they can even look for a job.
Woodside’s assistance has meant so much more for Guadalupe Miranda, who talks animatedly about her experience. She moved to New York City from Nevada, leaving behind an abusive relationship with her husband. “When I arrived here in New York, I looked for help… I looked alone because I didn’t have a guide, somebody to help me,” she said. “I thought that nobody was going to listen to me.”
They have made my children strong, they have made me [feel like I am] a valuable person.
Once she found the center, though, she not only got care for her children but someone to help her navigate her way out of that relationship. Mercedes Jimenez, who runs the Parent Corps classes, helped her find her way around Brooklyn and went with her to court. “I said don’t worry, I’m here for you, we go together,” Jimenez said. “I told her always you are my daughter. I treated her like my daughter.”
“It feels like a family,” Miranda said. “It’s a help I never thought I was going to have.” She’s now able to work while her children are in school and she has an easier time raising them after taking the Parent Corps classes. When asked what she would do without it, she paused for a long time. “I don’t know. I don’t know,” she finally responded. “If I didn’t have the center, I know that it would be harder for me.” Without an affordable place to bring her children, she’d likely have to pay for a babysitter for a few hours at a time at a high cost, as her sister does. Her job wouldn’t cover that sum plus the cost of food and rent. “It’s not easy to find a center like here,” she said.
But the impact runs much deeper. “They have made my children strong, they have made me [feel like I am] a valuable person, not to be afraid, that I have strength,” she said. That strength is clear, as she beams with confidence and stands with a self-assured posture. “I will be grateful for my whole life.”
For his part, Israel sees the benefits of his experience with Head Start rippling outward. His barber shop now employs 11 people, which he notes is “definitely a really good thing for the community.” He also has an intern who he’s teaching to cut hair and run a business. They employ two people at the café and will soon hire more, possibly including another intern. Meanwhile, the café is part of a franchise and he eventually wants to give the opportunity to open another one to “a struggling family that has potential, that has the potential to grow a business,” he said.
He also wants to give back to Head Start, beginning with the Woodside location that served his children. “I’ll see if I can do something for them as much as I can,” he said.
Israel wants others to have doors open like they did for him. “All families need in this country is a simple opportunity from something like childcare,” he said. “You get that little extra push, you can definitely do something if you put your mind to it.”