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Economy affecting Arizona preschools, child care

Attendance drops at preschools as parents try to adjust

Daylen Wright (left), 4, Denali McKnight (center), 4, and Juan Martin, 3, play in a class at Valley Child Care and Learning Center in Glendale.

Daylen Wright (left), 4, Denali McKnight (center), 4, and Juan Martin, 3, play in a class at Valley Child Care and Learning Center in Glendale.

PHOENIX – When you’re 3, it’s hard to understand why your best buddy suddenly stops coming to preschool, without so much as a goodbye.

“The children miss their friends,” said Corrine Cakebread, assistant director at the Valley Child Care and Learning Center in Glendale, where enrollment has dropped to 149 from 250 a year ago. Signs on three doors at the center read, “This classroom is not in use.”

The nation’s economic troubles are playing out one family at a time in child-care centers and preschools across Arizona as parents lose their jobs and must cut back on attendance or pull their children out of preschool to save money. Child-care centers are reporting 10 percent to 20 percent decreases in enrollment, said Bruce Liggett, director of the Arizona Child Care Association in Phoenix, an advocacy group.

Young children are staying home with unemployed parents or with relatives or friends as families pare day-care budgets. Parents working at home are choosing to keep kids with them, while others are allowing school-age children, some as young as 8, to stay home alone.

“They’re just making do somehow,” Liggett said.

Child-care centers and preschools that once had waiting lists find themselves scrambling to fill vacant spots. For the first time, many are offering part-time or drop-in service and changing hours to better accommodate parents’ schedules.

“While the adults in the family are under this kind of stress, nothing is as important for the child as consistency,” said Dana Vela, president of Sunrise Preschools Inc., with 29 locations in metro Phoenix.

“Children hear the news, and they hear their parents talking,” she said. “They’re aware on whatever level they can comprehend that this is bad, so it’s really important that when they do need child care that they still have the same faces, the same place, the same friends and the same teacher in their lives.”

Enrollment at Sunrise Preschools is down 10 percent from last year.

In Arizona, child-care costs average $6,000 a year for one preschooler. Nationwide, the average is $3,380 to $10,787 annually, according to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.

Some parents are falling behind in their payments.

“You feel for the parents,” said Robin Stirling-Kottabi, who owns two child-care centers in Tucson, the Sandbox and the Clubhouse. “Sometimes, it’s a choice between child care and putting food on the table. You understand one thing has to go.”

As with others in the industry, she worries that cash-strapped parents will be forced to make decisions about child care that could be unsafe, such as leaving kids home alone or having older kids care for younger siblings. Others are hiring neighborhood kids for $5 an hour to baby-sit, or leaving children with various relatives throughout the week.

“Children are being bounced from house to house and place to place in order to save money,” said Debra White, operations manager for Valley Child Care and Learning Centers, where enrollment is down 20 percent at 11 locations over last year.

Declining enrollment and spotty attendance are creating financial hardships for centers and preschools at a time when other costs, such as electricity and food, are rising. For the first time in 27 years, Stirling-Kottabi was unable to give her teachers pay raises.

“I am just sick about it,” she said.

Typically, 140 children attend her two centers. Now it’s about 110, sometimes even 97.

Child-care centers are looking at ways to cut costs – conserving electricity, stretching supplies – to avoid reducing their employees’ hours or cutting jobs.

“We’ll make it through, but we worry about the children,” Vela said.

White said, “At this age, children start making those relationships and those bonds, so your 3- and 4-year-olds will ask, ‘Where is my best friend? I miss her. I want to play with her.’ ”

Staff members are unsure what to tell the children.

“We want to be truthful, but we don’t want to scare the children either,” Cakebread said. “We tell the children that their friend has the opportunity to stay at home. We try to focus on the positive.”

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For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

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