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After-school care maxed out; area family brings concerns to school board after they find waiting lists

By Laura Hayes

laurahayes@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 9/5/18

While kindergarteners might look forward to their first day of school and making new friends, some working parents find themselves asking, “What am I going to do with my child before and after …

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After-school care maxed out; area family brings concerns to school board after they find waiting lists

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While kindergarteners might look forward to their first day of school and making new friends, some working parents find themselves asking, “What am I going to do with my child before and after school?”

That was the situation Danielle and Marc Prokopchak found themselves in when they registered their son for kindergarten at Middletown Area School District before later pulling him out to attend a private school. They were unable to find before- and after-school care that could accommodate their work schedules.

“It’s a financial burden for our family, but more importantly, it’s unfair for him. He was looking forward to that. It’s a new chapter for our family, but unfortunately, he doesn’t get to experience that,” Danielle said during the school board’s Aug. 21 meeting.

Danielle and Marc have lived in Lower Swatara Township for six years. Before the move, the Prokopchaks had been commuting to work in Harrisburg from Lancaster and decided to move closer, Danielle said in an interview.

At the time, Danielle was pregnant with their first child, Roman, and they wanted a neighborhood with space for kids to play and easy access to Route 283 to visit family in Lancaster.

They found their home in Old Reliance. When time came for Roman to go to kindergarten, Danielle said that there was never a question whether to send him to public school.

In March, Danielle registered Roman for kindergarten in the Middletown Area School District. Roman was excited to attend kindergarten — they drove by the school, looked up teachers, talked to neighbors, and hyped it up over the summer. Danielle visited John C. Kunkel Elementary School, which they thought he would attend.

Both Danielle and Marc have full-time jobs, and when she asked about before- and after-school care options, a district staff member told her about local providers.

After calling local day cares, Danielle said she picked up on two things.

“It’s very early or [they’re] not even enrolling yet for the school year,” she said.

Danielle said she also got the impression that she should wait to register her son for day care until they knew for sure to which school he was going.

During the Aug. 21 school board meeting, MASD Superintendent Lori Suski told Danielle that she felt that Danielle was provided inaccurate information “because it is really irrelevant what school you go to because we bus from every elementary to every day care in the district.”

When June rolled around, Danielle said she decided to call and register him for day care, even though they didn’t know for sure what school he would attend. She said she called one day care — Ebenezer Christian Childcare, which rents space in Kunkel — and staff told her that there was no space available but that she could be placed on a waiting list. 

Danielle said she called two other day cares and was told that they had waiting lists, too.

They considered numerous options to try to make it work. Could Roman attend day care in Harrisburg and then be taken to school in Middletown?

A stranger approached Danielle after hearing about her predicament saying that she could put her son on the bus in the morning, although the Prokopchaks would still need to find someone to pick him up in the afternoon.

“We needed a consistent option,” Danielle said.

As a woman with a career in politics, Danielle said it’s hard in general to have both a career and a family. Plus, her family gets their health care through Danielle’s job. She works for the Democratic Caucus of the Pennsylvania Senate.

“I felt personally offended that I would have to go to my boss and adjust my hours — which isn’t possible — or quit my job,” Danielle said.

She said that she felt she shouldn’t have to do that just so that her son could attend public schools.

Most mothers, Danielle added, get back into their careers once their children start school.

The Prokopchaks said they thought they already went through the hard years — Danielle’s maternity leave and Marc attending law school with kids.

“It was insane, and we were looking forward to Roman going to school, not knowing it would be as difficult to try to figure everything out,” Marc said.

Waiting list hasn’t been touched

According to Amy Schreffler, co-owner of Discovery Kids Childcare Center, they have at least 15 children on the waiting list for before- and after-school care services at each of their sites on Oberlin Road and Emaus Street.

Schreffler said the list has been growing over the past five years, and currently, they have around 56 kids enrolled at the Oberlin Road site and 37 children on the roster at the Emaus Street location.

“We haven’t been able to touch the waiting list,” Schreffler said.

The same is true at Growing Adventures Child Care on Oberlin Road. Director Pamela Blazi said they also have a waiting list of around 15 children, too.

“Starting last year, I got too many phone calls and emails. So we needed to start putting people on a waiting list as the program was full very quickly,” Blazi said.

Growing Adventures, which serves around 80 children from six weeks to 12 years old, has space for 24 children in its before- and after-school program, which includes meals.

“This really just started before the last school year. I’m not sure why, but it probably has to do with both parents working and not wanting young children to be left home alone,” Blazi said.

What does the Discovery Kids care include? Schreffler said before-school care includes breakfast and quiet, relaxed time before the school bus picks them up at the center’s door.

During after-school care, children are given snacks before being free to play outside or in the center.

At Discovery Kids, children who are already enrolled get first priority for programs that offer before- and after-school care, Schreffler said. Even for families who don’t need care during the school year, but may need a summer camp, Schreffler said enrolled students get first priority for camp, too. She said they’ve been turning away children for the summer camps as well.

Paying for day care wasn’t the issue — the Prokopchaks said they were willing to pay for before- and after-school care. Danielle said if they knew in the beginning that there was no space in the day cares, she would have reached out to friends for help or found someone through a caregiver website. Or, if children enrolled in the day care’s summer camp got first choice, Danielle said she would have signed Roman up.

Marc used to work for a day care in the West Shore School District.

“We never turned a kid away,” Marc said, adding that they would add more staff if more children registered. “I never in all my years imagined that there wouldn’t be spaces. That’s just inconceivable to me.”

A couple weeks ago, Danielle said she reached out to Goddard School in Hummelstown where Roman has been going since he was a toddler. The school has a kindergarten program, and Danielle said they lucked out that they had spots available.

“We sign up as parents for this job, and it’s our responsibility to make it work, but it seems there are just very simple ways to fix that problem,” Danielle said.

Accommodating more students

When she went before the board, Danielle asked the school district to consider partnering with day cares that can accommodate more students.

Board member Melvin Fager said he went through a similar situation, and his wife chose to work later.

“My opinion, we’re offering a lot more than other school districts. When we were going through it, someone said to me, ‘We’re here to educate, not to babysit,’” Fager said.

Suski said the district doesn’t partner with day cares for before- and after-school care services.

“The day care facilities come to us and ask to rent space in our facilities,” Suski said. “We have no jurisdiction over their staffing. We have no jurisdiction over how many students they take. That is their business.”

She said Ebenezer used to run a second day care space in Reid Elementary School, adding that it was their understanding that they closed it after losing children to other day cares. Space is limited, she said. At Kunkel, where Ebenezer still runs a day care, Suski said they used the school’s gym and cafeteria and there wouldn’t be space for another provider.

In an email after the meeting, Suski said Loving Arms Daycare used to rent space at Fink before it was moved to First Church of God. She said MASD buses students from all day cares within the district to all the elementary schools.

A parent, she explained, doesn’t have to pick a day care within a certain distance from their child’s elementary school to be transported to the school.

“Honestly, this is the first year we ever heard anything about day cares being maxed out,” Suski said during the board meeting.

Board member Darnell Montgomery said his neighbors — who were both attorneys — were going through a similar situation and had to adjust their schedules.

He said the district couldn’t control the process, but they could help parents be informed, such as providing a list of providers, their services and encourage parents to reach out to the day cares.

“It’s unfortunate where you are right now, and we hear you. We will do our due diligence to make that happen,” Montgomery said.

An ongoing issue?

As Danielle sees it, unless families leave the district or don’t continue to use the day care services, the issue is going to persist.

Schreffler advised parents to think about future before and after school care needs when looking for a day care for their infants or toddlers.

She suggested that parents get their child on every waiting list possible, and call every several months to see if there’s been progress.

“With having four sites, I can’t expand on any of my buildings,” Schreffler said.

As for Growing Adventures, Blazi said they accept applications on a continual basis, adding that she was unsure whether there would be space available. She suggested that parents call and tour centers before they need care because the centers often fill up.

Blazi said all of their space is filled, and they asked MASD for space, but had been denied.

In April, MASD administrators told the board that they received a request from Growing Adventures to use district facilities. At the time, according to the meeting minutes, MASD Chief Financial Officer David Franklin said the day care requested classroom space, which he noted may not be available because teachers may need access to the rooms at the same time.

He also noted that the day care didn’t specify what school it wanted to use.

At the time, Vice President Mike Corradi said he thought the new Middletown Area Recreation Alliance, which is replacing Olmsted Regional Recreation Board, could provide a similar service and asked whether MASD should commit the space.

“There is a definite need for more before- and after-school care, and I hope a solution is found soon,” Blazi said.

In an email, Suski said that when the request came in in April, they assumed that MARA would be up and running by the late summer.

“Since MARA is not yet up and running and no day care program has been developed as was suggested by a board member, I asked the board if they wished to reconsider renting space to Growing Adventures based on the information provided by Mrs. Prokopchak last week,” Suski said.

She said she reached out to Blazi, who Suski said would appreciate reconsideration and were willing to operate out of Reid.

The request, Suski said, will be coming before the school board at its Sept. 4 meeting.

“I anticipate that the board will approve this request since they are now aware that this need exists within the community and MARA is not yet operational,” Suski said.

Danielle said she was happy to hear that the board listened and is considering expanding before and after school options for families.

“While it comes too late for most families as the school year is underway, I hope that this option will remain in place for the next school year and make this process much easier from the beginning,” Danielle said. “I know this will be a relief for many families that I’ve met in the past few months.”