Volume 22, Number 04 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | June 5 - 11, 2009
Downtown Express photos by Tequila Minsky
Suellen Epstein, owner of Children’s Tumbling, above, said if things go well, enrollment will only be about two thirds of what it was last summer.
Youth programs hanging on as families tighten their belts
By Julie Shapiro
On the playground and in schoolyards, Lower Manhattan parents are talking about how to save money on programs for their children.
“People are not doing what they normally do this year,” said Tricia Joyce, a Tribeca mother of 5-year-old twin girls. “They’re being more careful.”
As parents close their pocketbooks, many children’s program providers are feeling the pinch. From nursery schools to children’s gyms, half a dozen owners who spoke to Downtown Express said they are seeing dips in enrollment. They said some laid-off parents are moving their families out of the city, while others who recently lost their jobs are watching their children themselves rather than paying for childcare and classes.
Parents who still work full-time, like Joyce, have little choice but to spend some money on childcare over the summer. Joyce looked for affordable options and ultimately settled on a month at Manhattan Youth’s Downtown Day Camp, which at $2,195 a child is not much more expensive than a full-time babysitter, Joyce said.
While Manhattan Youth offers one of the least expensive deals Downtown, executive director Bob Townley said his enrollment is still down about 10 percent compared to last summer. At the same time, requests for financial aid are up 20 percent.
“People who signed up have lost their jobs,” Townley said.
This summer, Townley is launching a weeklong Upstate camp for $900 a child, but he expects half the children to receive scholarships. He is using a sliding scale that gives 50 percent off to families making less than $100,000 a year, and 25 percent off to families making less than $150,000.
“People tell me what they can afford,” Townley said.
But not every children’s program can be so flexible, and some of those that cannot are suffering even sharper drop-offs in enrollment.
“This is even worse than last summer,” said Denise Cordivano, director of Battery Park City Day Nursery. “It’s awful.”
Cordivano will have to close one classroom this summer because not enough children signed up for the programs, which range from $675 to $1,850 a month, depending on the age of the child and the number of hours they attend.
Cordivano also still has openings for her fall classes, while in previous years she would have been taking names for waitlists by the beginning of June.
“It’s a strange time right now,” Cordivano said. “We should be growing, we should have waitlists, but we don’t.”
One upside for Cordivano is that more parents are picking full-time programs rather than part-time. She thinks they are trying to limit their expenses by cutting nannies and once-a-week specialty classes, and full-time programs offer a better value.
As Cordivano predicted, those specialty programs are seeing their enrollments fall. MiniMasters, an early childhood arts center in Tribeca, closed at the beginning of May because children stopped signing up. And Tribeca Hebrew, a 5-year-old Jewish educational community, just closed this month.
“It’s just the perfect storm,” said Karie Parker Davidson, one of Tribeca Hebrew’s founders.
The after-school program needed to reach 120 students, but fewer than 100 signed up. At the same time, scholarship requests rose and donations dropped.
“We had people who were just unable to pay,” Davidson said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty. When there’s uncertainty, people are slow to make commitments.”
Davidson is encouraging Tribeca Hebrew’s families to join Tribeca’s Jewish Community Project, which will expand its after-school classes to include the newcomers.
Rabbi Darren Levine, J.C.P.’s executive director, said about 10 percent of his families receive scholarships, but he has not seen a large impact from the recession. Still, Levine said J.C.P. decided to put some new programs, like a family retreat, on hold until the economy improves.
Another specialty program that is struggling is Suellen Epstein’s Children’s Tumbling on Murray St. Epstein has enrolled only one-third as many children as usual in her summer session, and even if many families sign up at the last minute, she still only expects to reach two-thirds of last summer’s count.
“It’s not looking good,” Epstein said. She will have to cancel several classes unless more people sign up.
Some parents told Epstein they are looking for free programs for their children this summer. Others said they want to take advantage of the programs that come with membership to Manhattan Youth or other community centers, rather than pay separately for a la carte classes.
Susan Spielger, whose 8-year-old daughter Lily takes classes at Children’s Tumbling, said she might have to cut out her daughter’s piano and signing lessons, but she wouldn’t take away gymnastics.
“It’s good for her self-esteem,” Spielger said as she watched Lily swing from a trapeze.
Another parent, Jennifer Lupo, said she appreciated that Epstein has kept her prices the same, while other programs have raised costs while cutting program time. A seven-week Children’s Tumbling class that meets once a week costs $250.
Anna Grossman, director of the Hudson River Park Mothers’ Group, sees an unfilled market for affordable “mommy and me” classes for young children in Lower Manhattan. Many of the children’s centers that have sprung up in Tribeca over the past few years, including miniMasters, marketed themselves more by the amenities they offered families than by affordability.
“People have gone through a lot of changes,” Grossman said. “They’re looking for jobs or they’re between jobs. You’re going to see a lot of people being more conservative with their spending.”
Not all children’s facilities are having a problem, and some are even expanding. The Church Street School for Music and Art is adding 6,000 square feet to reduce the long wait lists that the popular program has seen in the past. So far, despite the recession, enrollment is holding steady but financial aid applications are up, the school said.
The Park Preschool opened a second location last fall, called The Barclay Street School, and executive director Kevin Artale said he was not having trouble filling the new seats for either this summer or next fall.
“When we planned this, we didn’t plan on the recession hitting,” Artale said of the expansion. “It is what it is…. I’m a little bit nervous, sure, but everything is working out.”
Artale said Lower Manhattan’s growing population of young families could be cushioning the blow of the downturn. Residential rents Downtown have been staying steady relative to the rest of the city, and Artale sees a constant stream of new families moving into luxury rental buildings, including Barclay Towers right next to the preschool’s new location.
Those new families replace the ones who are forced to leave the neighborhood because of layoffs, said Ayala Marcktell, founder of the Tribeca Community School. Marcktell is expanding her program as well, adding two new classrooms. She still has 10 spaces available for next fall, but sounded confident that she would fill them.
“I don’t know,” Marcktell said when asked whether the recession was affecting her school. “I hope not.”
With reporting by Candida L. Figueroa and Helaina N. Hovitz