Amid complaints, an embattled child care program struggles to improve

Andrew Kuo/Senior Staff
Most of the complaints regarding quality of care and education are from student-parents living at the University Village housing complex.

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At her meeting next week, Graduate Assembly Campus Affairs Vice President Bahar Navab will listen to disgruntled students’ uncommon but pressing concern: that their families are not receiving equal treatment because they need help paying for child care.

UC Berkeley’s Early Childhood Education Program affords students, faculty and staff the chance to relieve themselves of the 24/7 demands of parenthood. While mom or dad is on campus taking classes or pursuing a career, the program, which offers school and day care for infants, toddlers and preschoolers, provides an indispensable service.

But Briana Starks says that when she walked into UC Berkeley’s Early Childhood Education Program office and watched as an admissions coordinator pulled out a calculator to determine, in front of her, how much she was saving on the program — how “fortunate” she was — she could not bring herself to feel much gratitude.

Starks, a fifth-year undergraduate, is one of a group of student-parents for whom the costs of the Early Childhood Education Program are subsidized by the state. But a number of the subsidized students say they feel that, either through mistreatment by program administrators or through inferior schooling, their families receive a lower quality of service because they are unable to afford the program’s full costs, which range from nearly $18,000 to more than $24,000 per child annually, according to the program’s full-fee admissions agreement.

The program serves 203 children, 70 of whom are children of students. Of those, 60 are subsidized. The state of California, which provides nearly all subsidy funding for student-parents in the program, awards funds to students based on traditional measurements of need similar to those used for financial aid, as well as other metrics, such as the amount of free time parents have, according to program administrators.

The subsidized families’ complaints are nothing new. In fact, the administrators have known about specific fair-treatment issues and problems with their program’s general operation for quite a while.

An embattled program

In the past four years, the program has gone through three directors, lost two education centers and begun the construction of a new building on Dwight Way. Mary-Ann Cogan, a supervisor of the Early Childhood Education Program, said budget cuts caused a lot of this chaos, which included a string of licensing violations.

In fall 2012, after an aborted attempt to hand over management of the program to a private company due to safety and organizational concerns, the program requested that the International Child Resource Institute, a nonprofit organization, conduct an assessment of the program.

The institute published its findings in a in June report that detailed a number of critical issues facing the program and included a plan for improvement. The program’s biggest challenges centered around high staff absence rates, poor organization and a lack of communication between program employees and parents.

“We were having some problems with child care,” Cogan said. “We started to be concerned that we could have a safety issue for our centers.”

In one communication mishap, the report stated, an unnamed enrollment coordinator misconstrued information passed on from an executive director of the program three years earlier. The coordinator thought subsidized families did not merit equal treatment with regard to enrollment in the program because they contributed less money to the program than those paying the full fee, even though with the subsidies their contributions were the same. The coordinator, according to the report, was likely responsible for the underenrollment  of subsidized children in the program.

A lot has already been done to address all of these issues, according to Cogan. She said the actions have noticeably improved the program.

“This program — for me, there’s so many wonderful things about it that I can’t help but celebrate where we’re going versus dwelling on some of the baggage in the past,” Cogan said.

According to Ken Jaffe, an author of the report, this enrollment coordinator was moved to a different post six months ago, and the problem has been resolved.

“The university was never in any way discriminatory. There was a misunderstanding by the individual,” Jaffe said. “The immediately previous enrollment coordinator had a misunderstanding that evolved in her mind, which came from a misinterpretation of a past executive director.”

But similar problems, student parents say, are ongoing.

Problems in the classroom

Most of the complaints regarding the quality of schooling and care for children have come from just one of the program’s four centers, at University Village in Albany, which provides housing for student families. University Village, which some parents say provides a generally worse quality of child care compared with other centers, houses a disproportionately high number of subsidized children in the early childhood enrichment program.

On Oct. 15, parents with children in one of the classrooms at University Village received an email telling them one of their teachers, Lori Walker, opted to take a vacancy at the Clark Kerr child education center three days later. Another of their teachers soon went on leave.

Left with only one teacher, five of the 12 families with children at the University Village classroom met to share their grievances, according to third-year law student Matthew Hamity. They had had enough.

Walker’s job was filled last week by a new teacher, Daiad Aljalili.

Starks, who pulled both her daughters out of the University Village center, and Jessica Alegria, a student parent who has a daughter at the center now, said they also experienced bad potty-training support, “accidents” that went unnoticed and safety problems or injuries that went unreported or unseen.

“They say that they are play-based, but they really are just free-for-all,” Starks said.

For Starks, Walker’s transfer only compounds these issues.

“I feel like she was committed to the kids and their needs,” Starks said. “Knowing that she left, I would never send my next youngest, my baby, there. Ever. My kids will never go back.”

Cogan and acting Co-Executive Director Ellie Mashhour said that the program did not purposefully separate subsidized and full-fee children and that the curriculum at each of the centers is the same.

Yet a similar curriculum does not mean similar classrooms.

The International Child Resource Institute’s June report observed a high level of inconsistency in how that curriculum was delivered. A toddler room at one of the centers, which the report did not identify, showed a high level of child frustration and a lack of sufficient stimulation, according to the report.

Pressing reform

Rodney Wilson, a fourth-year undergraduate, said an admissions coordinator asked for certain forms and information as part of the application for subsidized care that his previous child care provider, at a community college in Contra Costa County, had not required. He said he received little help in dealing with these new forms and little explanation of why they were needed.

“It feels to me like there’s an opinion at the administration and management level that subsidized families do not have the right, or perhaps the capacity, to understand what’s going on,” Wilson said.

Other parents have complained about the UC Berkeley program requiring extra forms or specific types of forms that can be hard to get, even though other child care programs did not, Mashhour said.

Wilson was able to resolve the problems after talking with Mashhour, who said the Early Childhood Education Program requires these forms for a yearly state inspection of subsidized families’ files.

Robert Vaclav, a fourth-year undergraduate, said he also felt the administration regarded him with an unnecessarily curt manner.

“I appreciated the fact that it was a subsidized system; it’s just that the way everything was handled was like they were doing me a favor,” Vaclav said.

Mashhour and Cogan have both worked this year on implementing the plan for improvement laid out in the June report. The program organizational structure, hiring processes, job descriptions and enrollment processes have already changed, Cogan said.

She said these changes have cut the program’s teacher, teacher assistant and student assistant absences to half the rate they were in January and February.

Cogan said there should be a new executive director by the end of this academic year. Already, more than 200 people have been reviewed for the job.

Contact Daniel Tutt at [email protected].