Scramble for Afterschool Spots Leaves Parents Frustrated

Last month, as Island families were wrapping up summer vacations and preparing for a new school year, dozens found an unexpected task added to their back-to-school list: finding afterschool child care.

A quarter of the families who applied to the free Beacon afterschool program at PS/IS 217, operated by the Child Center of NY (CCNY), were waitlisted for this year’s program (including this reporter), leaving parents scrambling to find last-minute alternatives and fueling complaints about the lack of coordination between different Island programs including CCNY, Island Kids, and the RIOC Youth Program, to help working parents fill in the gaps.

“Working parents, what do we do?” wrote Elizabeth Erickson, mother to a rising third grader, to a Facebook group for Island parents after the Beacon waitlist was announced. “I feel abandoned and questioning my decision to send my daughter to PS 217. But I did, and talking about it, begging for help from the PTA and from the school, hasn’t worked. Since nobody will help us—we need to help each other.”

Limited Resources

According to Deepmalya Gosh, the senior vice president of community engagement for CCNY, the Beacon afterschool program is funded and contracted to serve 150 children between kindergarten and middle school. Any increase beyond that, he says, would strip needed resources from other areas and expectations, including “the un-engaged middle school students attending IS 217, as well as those who have transitioned into high school or who are having trouble succeeding as they grow into adults.” Part of their grant money is contingent upon them serving those populations, and not simply focusing on afterschool for elementary aged students.

While he understands parents’ frustration, he says that the Island cannot depend solely on Beacon for its childcare.

But some parents say they’ve been left with few options.

Part of the increase in Beacon’s demand this year was the result of a move by PS/IS 217 Principal Mandana Beckman to scale back the scope of Island Kids, a private afterschool program that also operates out of the school. The paid program costs parents $6,500 per school year, with some scholarships offered. Last year, Island Kids served 38 pre-K through second graders. This year, however, the program was asked to limit its enrollment to pre-K and kindergarten. This left some Island Kids parents, like Lisa Tomanelli, with few options.

Tomanelli says her daughter, now a second grader, started at Island Kids when she was in kindergarten, at an age the former Beacon provider did not serve. The next year, she chose to stay with Island Kids because the Beacon program had a new operator and seemed a risky choice. “There were just so many unknowns, and I’m not a fan of unknowns,” she explains. This year, she and her partner were told there would no longer be Island Kids programming for second graders, so they had no other option but to apply to Beacon. Then they were waitlisted three weeks before school was set to start.

Erin Olavesen, the former PS/IS 217 PTA president, says that space at the school has become an increasingly scarce commodity.

Part of that she attributes to higher demand. Olavesen says that, last year, the CCNY-operated afterschool program appeared to serve much higher numbers than the former Beacon operator, Roosevelt Island Youth Program (RIYP) had. The Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), which funds the Beacon program, couldn’t offer an exact enrollment number for prior years, but according to a Department of Education representative, RIYP used only five of the school’s classrooms during the school year for their Beacon afterschool program, while CCNY needs 15 rooms to accommodate their needs.

Additionally, PS/IS 217 now operates its own after school tutoring programs in reading, math, and ESL instruction, which further limits the amount of space available. Island Kids bore the brunt of this increase in need for space by both the school and the Beacon.

Then, when it became clear that this year’s Beacon program would not be able to meet the demand for spots, Island Kids was permitted to once again open enrollment to first and second graders. Nikki Leopold, founding Director of Island Kids, said that would enable her to take up to 12 of the 45 children from the Beacon waitlist. Ultimately Island Kids ended up with 58 kids, a 20-seat increase from 38 last year. Her enrollment also includes some third graders who were “grandfathered” into the program.

For many, though whether they were awarded a space in Island Kids or not, the damage was done. Adding fuel to some parents’ fight was a left-over resentment that CCNY was awarded the contract at all, while Island Kids was shut out of the process by the school’s principal.

A Lack of Coordination

Leopold says she understands the space constraints at the school. The larger issue, according to Leopold, is that the Island’s community agencies are working against each other.

She points out that the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation recently earmarked additional funding to the tune of close to $800,000 for its new Youth Center Department—bringing its budget to roughly twice that of the Beacon program—but did not reach out to scrambling parents in August to register kids, promote their program, and help offset the problem.

Besides a recent Facebook post, the organization has not publicized their own afterschool registration or synchronized their offerings with those of CCNY so the two could complement one another. They only recently debuted the programming itself.

RIOC’s Public Information Officer, Alonza Robertson, says RIOC is enrolling kids. He says that RIOC shared all the information about the fall/winter programming with [the] school’s principal on Monday (September 17) to share with all of school’s parents. “We have also emailed all of the parents, organizations, housing managers and others on our Island-wide contact list as well as posted this information on our website and social media channels. Enrollment is on a rolling basis, i.e., we are still able to accept more children.”

In Leopold’s view that isn’t enough. She says, “It seems people are working at cross-purposes all the time. I’m baffled. To invest in the Youth Center… without any assessment as to the needs of the community… I don’t know what [RIOC’s] plan is.”

Robertson acknowledges that the community at large was not surveyed, but says RIOC meet with its own parental advisory board (described as an informal group of about ten parents whose children attend the Youth Center) to assess programming needs. Where the budget is concerned, he says, “it allows us to fully staff the program – including a full-time PSD youth officer – and handle its anticipated annual programs.”

Regular programming consists of board games, computers, gaming equipment, healthy snacks, and drinks. Art Studio Workshop takes place Thursdays form 5pm–7pm. For 10-18 year olds, bike safety classes will be offered starting next week, fall basketball for students in grades eight through twelve will take place from 5-8pm on Monday, Wednesday and Friday commencing in October. Other new programming is still in the works.

The afterschool program run by RIOC is not a licensed childcare program, but rather a drop-in space for youth in second grade through high school. Staff pick up students from PS/IS 217 and walk them to Sportspark, the program’s temporary location while its main space is being renovated. Students can stay until 8:00 p.m. Currently parents describe the program as “a hang-out place.” RIOC says it currently picks up 15 children in grades two and three. Some older children, with their parents’ permission, walk to the center on their own.

“The original RFP application [for running the Youth Center] was for $200,000, which you can’t do much with,” says Leopold, who also unsuccessfully applied to operate the Youth Center last year. “Now it’s changed to add another $800,000, but we still don’t have enough afterschool seats for all the kids. Something needs to change in the approach to all of this.”

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