To the Editor:
I am a parent of a third grader at PS/IS 217. I am a relative newcomer, having moved here when my son entered kindergarten in 2014. I am an educator with more than 30 years of experience. As a parent, without a long-term perspective of Island politics, I try to stay neutral, listen, watch, and learn.
My son went to Island Kids for afterschool when he was in kindergarten, which we loved. Had we had the financial capability, we would have kept him in this program for first grade as well, however this was not an option for us. We were greatly relieved to learn of the Beacon program, a tax-funded afterschool program for grades one to five. At the beginning there was a lot of stress for us going to Beacon. There was no website and no easy access to information about the program. I felt that one had to have an inside track in order to navigate basic enrollment. I learned by networking with other parents how to enroll my son, sending my mother-in-law to be first on line for fear they would fill up and he wouldn’t have a spot. We got through that first year flying by the seat of our pants.
In time we came to understand the culture of the Beacon program and how to access information. Our son was happy to attend, and the providers were transparent. At pick up, the children were playing outside, doing sports, engaging in art projects, playing board games, and having fun involved in age-appropriate activities. The providers were actively engaged with the children and with me as a parent. Was there room for improvement? Yes. Were we unhappy with the Roosevelt Island Youth Program running Beacon? No. The improvements I saw a need for had to do with increasing communication to parents, not the quality of the program for the children. At that point, Aikaterini was the director and she was easily accessible, even providing me with her cell number.
Last summer I heard talk at a baseball game about the school looking for a new provider to run Beacon. I was told by one parent “to expect great things.” Being relatively oblivious to the heated and deep-seated sentiment of many people regarding the RIYP, both for and against, I sat back, listened, observed, and waited to see what would unfold. The Child Center of New York was awarded the contract. Shortly after, an email was sent saying they would be presenting their program to parents the following evening. Despite the last-minute correspondence, the auditorium was full. To say I was unimpressed is an understatement.
The opening line was, “We come in peace, we come in peace.” I remember thinking, that’s great, but I would prefer you come with competence and information. There was little to no information presented about the program for children. Instead, we heard about the overarching agency that would be running the program, which I have since learned is a multi-million dollar operation. From the outset, the Child Center of New York appeared disorganized and overwhelmed, from basic enrollment to program management. The bedlam the first days and weeks resulted in some families I know removing their children from the program. I realized that a new provider would take time to get acclimated to the community and thus waited it out. When I learned that there would be one formal pickup time, I expressed my concern that this was not flexible enough for working families. I was in close contact with the President of the PTA, who made herself available to help ease the transition with the new provider.
Eventually, three formal pickup times were implemented. I was told that the Beacon program at PS/IS 217 was the only one in “their portfolio” to offer such flexibility. My son was bored at afterschool; he complained that counselors made fun of him, and as a parent I had no idea what was going on. All I knew was my son was coming home without his homework complete, and the happy atmosphere we had enjoyed the last couple of years was gone. I remember walking to the cafeteria fifteen minutes early. What I observed was absolute chaos. Children yelling, kicking, and throwing game pieces, and no counselors visible. When the assistant director came back he admonished me, reminding me they do not allow parents access to the program. I can see why! After this, I asked to come in to observe the program.
Observations are a standard practice in all the school and child care programs I have participated in. I was told these were against the policies of the program. This is in direct conflict with their licensing agency (Office of Children and Family Services). I was told by the director of Beacon, Christina Mangra, that this was the policy of the Child Center of New York. This had me wondering if it was only the Beacon program at PS/IS 217 that was out of compliance with the law, but also other programs they ran.
I do know there is an open case by OCFS, and that they are being asked to come into compliance with the law. I also found out from Ms. Mangra, during an individual conversation regarding my concerns as a parent, that the closed-door policies of the program were mandated by Principal Beckman. In a letter to the editor, in the January 20 edition of The WIRE, a group of concerned parents lambasted the Roosevelt Island Youth Program, asking that RIOC re-vote and not give them funding for the Youth Center. Accusations of dishonesty, deficiencies, and misappropriation of funds are made, with no concrete data to support them.
There is concern that, if the Youth Program receives funding, that their sports programs will be in competition with those the new Beacon providers are offering. Our son participates in the RIYP’s soccer and basketball programs. He also participates in the Babe Ruth League’s baseball program. What is wrong with choice for children and families? The letter also references the Youth Program’s case with OCFS. They say nothing about the fact that there is an open case against the Child Center of New York.
Though I’ve only seen Charlie DeFino in passing, it appears he is a central figure in the angst on the Island regarding the provision of our youth program. It is clear that there is long standing political controversy over his running the Youth Program as well as the Beacon Program. I have no factual knowledge to distrust him, so I choose to remain neutral. I do know I am happy with the Youth Program’s sports and I was happy with their running the Beacon program. As a parent I felt comfortable with providers that were part of the community and knew the people who live here. I do know on Form 990 for the 2016 tax year Charlie DeFino earned $77,252, hardly an outrageous salary for a person directing two local programs. I also know the program took in a total of $801,543 and had expenses of $791,491. There does not appear to be anything that outlandish in these financials.
In the same tax year, the Child Center of New York’s executive director, Tracie Donnelly, made $255,343, a generous salary for anyone, and certainly a surprising one for a person providing programing to youth within a non-profit agency. In fact, the salaries of just the top six officers total $989,476, more than the Youth Program’s total revenue. The Child Center of New York had a total revenue of just over $45 million and total expenses of just over $44 million. Looking at this limited data, I see why our Beacon program is just one of their portfolio. Clearly they are operating multiple programs and running a multi-million dollar corporation. So, has the presence of money in the background of the new providers translated into higher quality programming at the Beacon afterschool? From my perspective as a parent: No. The organization may have put together a good presentation to bid for the contract. Why wouldn’t they? This is their business.
In contrast, the RIYP and Island Kids’ director, Nikki Leopold, who do not have this fiscal and corporate infrastructure also bid. Both these organizations are local and have long histories of providing quality programming for children. As a parent I know who they are and I like both. I continue to try to remain neutral and give this new provider a chance as they get to know us and we get to know them. I am waiting to see how they will come into compliance with the law. I continue to wonder why Principal Beckman would prefer an organization outside the community to run an afterschool program in a “big city school with a small town feeling.”
[Editor’s Note: the following is a response from the Child Center of NY.]
As the “new kid on the block” on Roosevelt Island, the Child Center of NY remains grateful to have been awarded the new Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) Beacon Contract at PS/IS 217 this past August. With a 65-year history of providing vital neighborhood services such as behavioral health, early childhood, prevention, home health, and youth development services, one of the most important things we’ve learned is that each neighborhood is unique and must be approached individually. It is important for us to learn from the residents we serve so we may best provide and/or mobilize the resources and services the community needs to thrive. Thus, I was happy to have this opportunity to directly respond to a letter to the editor of The Main Street WIRE, and address some of the concerns therein.
The Child Center is proud to have kept our commitment to both learning and serving as the new Beacon provider these past five months at PS/IS 217. At the mid-August introductory meeting, when we learned that parents needed and expected afterschool services from the outset of school, we opened our doors on September 18, weeks earlier than anticipated. In order to do this safely and responsibly, the Child Center worked closely with the New York State Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) to operate as a “Single Purpose Recreation” program while undergoing the lengthy, months-long School-aged Child Care (SACC) licensing process, which includes multiple safety and security clearances for program staff members.
Though operating as a Single Purpose Recreation program enabled us to serve families sooner, it did restrict us from offering the type of homework help and other activities we normally provide under the multi-purpose SACC license. Veteran youth development professionals from our sister Beacon and COMPASS afterschool programs were also deployed to supplement the new and growing Roosevelt Island team so we could maintain safe ratios and mentor new staff while continuing to hire a brand new team. Among many other things, we also quickly learned that flexibility was required with our relatively standard dismissal procedure to accommodate Island parents’ needs.
In late November, we learned about a new OCFS expectation that SACC programs maintain a written policy and procedure for parents who wish to sit in and observe activity programming. While not stated explicitly in the regulations, we immediately worked with OCFS to develop an approved plan, and we submitted the draft within days. Once we receive feedback from OCFS and can communicate the policy officially, it will be sent home with our program participants as part of an amended Parent Handbook.
As we continue to build positive relationships and earn trust, two things we know are critical to any successful endeavor, and especially in youth development, we remain dedicated to hearing from any and all youth, parents, and community members who wish to share insight with us. We encourage anyone with questions or feedback about the Roosevelt Island Beacon to reach out to Christina Mangra, program director, or Nohar Ramlall, Assistant Director, at 718-577-5751. I can be reached at 718-651-7770 x6489 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
VP of Youth Development
The Child Center of NY