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Day care center moved amid flurry of early childhood changes

Parents and Sunset Park residents are up in arms over a decision by a local church to evict a popular day care center and replace it with a higher-paying tenant: the Department of Education.

A lease dispute between St. Michael’s Church and Sunset Park Early Childhood Development Center surfaced last summer, when the diocese landlord raised the rent to levels the day care center couldn’t afford.

That lease officially ended on Friday and the center was shut down until late January, when the 400-seat Head Start program will reopen in another church nearby, Our Lady of Perpetual Help. But the new facility needs renovations and does not have enough room for dozens of children with special needs.

Families of those children say they still don’t know where their children will attend school next month.

“That’s part of the issue,” said Maritza Arrastia, an Sunset Park organizer who is joining with parents and other community members today to rally in front of St. Michael’s. “It’s hard to get any information that’s clear.”

The DOE will start renovating St. Michael’s in January — months after a $1.2 million foundation-funded revamp meant for the day care program — and aims to open a new DOE school in the space in 2014, according to a department spokesman.

The relocation comes amid surge of policy initiatives that are threatening to reshape the state of early childhood education in the city.

City-funded child care centers, including more than 250 Head Start programs, are in the process of defending their value to the city. They must reapply for funding as part of an initiative called EarlyLearn, which is meant to boost the quality of early childhood offerings but has made operators of longstanding programs anxious about their futures.

EarlyLearn itself is newly in jeopardy. That’s because the city’s main provider of early childhood programs, the Administration for Children’s Services, was not on the list of “high quality” Head Start providers that the Obama Administration released this week. That means the city could lose out on $190 million in federal early childhood funding and remove Head Start from the portfolio of programs EarlyLearn is meant to assess.

From a report by Sarah Garland of the Hechinger Report for GothamSchools:

The potential loss of funding could disrupt a new initiative, EarlyLearn NYC, which is meant to streamline funding and improve the quality of the city’s early education programs. This fall, the city required all of its childcare programs, including the Head Start centers it oversees, to reapply for funding. But now that the city itself must reapply for its federal grant, “the implications could be pretty dramatic,” said Nancy Wackstein, executive director of United Neighborhood Houses of New York, a multi-service agency based in the city.

“If they don’t control the allocation of Head Start funds, then that would mean that they could not implement the EarlyLearn model,” she said.

Roadblocks to EarlyLearn’s implementation would be welcome news to some critics of EarlyLearn, including most members of the City Council, who say the initiative would likely shrink the city’s child care system, eliminate jobs, and disproportionately burden some centers that serve poor students.

Next week, the union that represents day care workers is planning to file suit to stop EarlyLearn’s rollout. According to a press release we received today, the union, DC 1707, will argue that EarlyLearn violates federal law.

Adding to the Sunset Park controversy is the fact that St. Michael’s recently finished renovations paid for by a $1.2 million Robin Hood grant that was intended for the Sunset Park Early Childhood Development Center. A spokeswoman for Catholic Charities said St. Michael’s was paying for a majority of the renovation fees that will be needed at their new facility.

“I don’t want to make it seem like they gave all the money back, but it works out that a bunch of the new renovations was paid for by St. Michael’s,” said Lucy Garrido-Mota.

Community members say it’s another example where they were not consulted about a public education decision.

“What clearly is happening, unfortunately, is a lack of communication with the community,” said Eddie Rodriguez, a Sunset Park resident and a District 15 Community Education Council member.

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