Five Child Care Programs Close as School Year Begins

Photo: Schoolchildren from the first and second grades at LeConte Elementary smile for the camera. The school has been forced to close some of its before- and after-school programs.
Anna Vignet/Staff
Schoolchildren from the first and second grades at LeConte Elementary smile for the camera. The school has been forced to close some of its before- and after-school programs.

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The beginning of the school year in the Berkeley Unified School District Wednesday also marked the end of several before- and after-school programs serving low-income students and their families.

Due to a 75 percent service reduction, supplementary programs at five elementary school sites in the district have been eliminated in response to proposed state budget revisions and the ongoing impasse preventing the budget's approval.

The reduction will cut the majority of local programs within the Berkeley's Excellent Academic Road to Success program, which provides need-based child care to many low-income families, in anticipation of the elimination of all state funding for child care programs.

The plan was approved by the district's board of education Aug. 18, and is effective only in September and October, leaving the future of child care in the district - as it is throughout the state - uncertain.

"The hope and assumption is that by then, the state will have come up with a budget," said district spokesperson Mark Coplan.

For the upcoming two months, the BEARS program, along with the district's preschool programs, will run only on its own cash reserves and a $38,000 contribution from the district.

"(BEARS) went from serving 300 students to serving 70," said Zachary Pless, program supervisor of Extended Learning for the district. "Hopefully we're not leaving those families hanging."

Programs at Berkeley Arts Magnet, LeConte Elementary, Rosa Parks Elementary, Thousand Oaks Elementary and Washington Elementary schools - which provided child care at least one hour before school days begin and after school every day until 5:30 p.m. - have been eliminated. Three program sites remain.

Starting today, many of the children who attended the program at the closed sites will now join a similar after-school program - Berkeley Links Enrichment, Academics and Recreation to the Needs of Students.

While the BEARS program, which emphasized services for low-income children, the Berkeley LEARNS program, which offers similar services, is not subsidized by the state.

To absorb BEARS students at little to no cost to the families, leftover revenue from fees paid by the parents of children enrolled in LEARNS will be used to subsidize the program, according to Emily Nathan, program supervisor for Berkeley LEARNS.

She added that this system may not be sustainable.

After dropping her son off on the first day of school, Berkeley resident Allegra Mills expressed how important the existence of after-school programs is for her family.

Her 4-year-old son entered kindergarten yesterday at LeConte Elementary, and Mills said she will not only rely on the LEARNS program to take care of her son while she is at work, but she will also look forward to the academic support he will receive during that time.

She said if the state budget - once approved - forces the district to cut all programs offering after-school care in the upcoming months, she will be forced to cut her hours at work to be able to pick up her son on time.

"I would have to make other arrangements for my son, like day-care." Mills said. "It would be an extra, added expense."

Berkeley resident and parent Basia Lubicz, whose 9-year-old son is enrolled in the LEARNS program at LeConte Elementary School, said the services provided by the district's after-school programs are invaluable.

She said the programs not only provide time for students to play, but also offer help with homework to keep students' minds active. She added that these services will be retained in the LEARNS program.

"The district has to weigh and balance what to do with dwindling funds," Lubicz said.

In effect, the remaining BEARS sites, along with those of the LEARNS program, will serve about the same number of students, but at reduced hours.

"The families have been very gracious," Pless said. "A lot of people understood that this was out of our control."

Despite these temporary fixes, the long-term future of the district's child care programs will remain undecided until the state budget is approved.

If the district still does not receive state funding after two months, costs to the district to keep these programs running will total $301,000 monthly, a sum it may not be able to afford, based on district estimates.

Whether or not a budget is passed at the state level, a new proposal outlining the future of these programs will have to come before the district's board before November.

"We've been able to save this program that's so critical to one of our most vulnerable populations in the community," Coplan said. "It's a real testament to the ability of our financial folks and commitment of the board to make sure we keep child care alive."


Soumya Karlamangla is the lead local schools reporter. Contact her at [email protected]

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