Volume 17 • Issue 15 | SEPTEMBER 3 - 10, 2004

Preparing garment workers’kids for school

Downtown Express photos by Lorenzo Ciniglio
Three-year-old students at the Garment Industry Day Care Center.

By Maria Ma

It’s a typical preschool scene: in one classroom, children recite their ABC’s in a sweet singsong. In another, three-year-olds learn the important life lesson of sharing coveted toys. A small boy sits hunched over at a desk, honing his shoelace-tying skills.

But here, at the Garment Industry Day Care Center on Chrystie St. in Chinatown, the children also receive instruction in other, weightier matters.

“We teach them things like understanding subway directions from station loudspeakers,” says Mee-ling Lee, the center’s program director. “Because then they have to translate it into Chinese for their parents.”

Preparing Chinatown’s youngsters for the demands of both elementary school and the real world is the mandate of the non-profit Garment Industry Day Care Center, which was founded in 1983 to care for the children of neighborhood garment workers. Many of the center’s 76 children, who range in age from 2 1/2 to 6 years, come from families where Chinese – Cantonese, mostly, but also Mandarin or Fujianese — is spoken exclusively and exposure to English is limited.

In response, the center teaches its young charges to read, write, speak and even sing in English as well as Chinese.

In one classroom, five-year-olds diligently practice their English language penmanship in composition books. Out in the hall, an apple-cheeked boy runs up and points to a class photograph taped to the wall. “That’s me!” he shouts gleefully in English. He then turns to speak to his mother, transitioning effortlessly into Mandarin.

“My children are learning English here,” says the mother, 40-year-old Li Rong Zhen, a garment worker who spoke in Mandarin. “If you speak English with my son, he understands it all. He even corrects my pronunciation.” She laughs and shakes her head with a mixture of amusement and maternal pride. “English words like ‘get along.’ He’s always telling me how to say it right.”

To better equip the children for the challenges of living in American society, Lee says, the center’s teachers also work hard to upend some traditional behaviors expected of young Chinese.

“We have to teach kids not to be shy so they can break the cultural mold that says they have to be obedient people,” she says. “We teach them to speak up for themselves. Otherwise, when they leave here and enter public school, they just sit there and don’t talk, don’t ask questions, don’t participate.”

This combination of high academic standards and staff dedication has made the center a popular choice for Chinatown’s overstretched working parents. Families apply through the city’s Agency for Child Services, and both parents must hold full-time jobs in order to qualify. Fees are based on the family’s income and can range from $3 to $76 per week for each child.

Not surprisingly, there is a waiting list to get in, though these days it is perhaps easier than ever. Chinatown’s apparel manufacturing sector is rapidly disappearing, thanks to skyrocketing Manhattan real estate prices coupled with the economic after-effects of 9/11. Many garment factories have already relocated to cheaper areas in the outer boroughs while others have simply closed down, as more companies outsource their manufacturing overseas.

“It used to be easy to find a job sewing,” says Zhen. “But now it is really difficult.”

In recent years, enrollment at the Garment Industry Day Care Center began to drop as garment workers, many of them recent immigrants and female, followed the factories and moved away. Last year, the center decided to admit children of workers in other trades for the first time in its 21-year history.

“Most of our parents are still garment workers,” says Lee. “But now we have some parents who work in restaurants, banks. We have parents who are nurses’ aides.”

The city’s budget cuts in day care and after-school programs have had a deleterious effect on the center’s operations, says Lee, adding that the economic downturn has made fundraising difficult. Rising costs have further contributed to a financial crunch.

“Money doesn’t buy what it used to buy,” she says. “Prices for milk, supplies, furniture have all increased. We have chairs that are 20 years old because we don’t have $100 to buy a new one.”

Though the center struggles to make ends meet, its track record of success is tangible. Former attendees have gone on to graduate from colleges such as Cornell, Syracuse and Pace, according to the center’s Teresa Chan. Some have returned to volunteer during their summer breaks as mentors and teaching assistants.

When questioned, parents uniformly expressed enthusiasm for the center. Many cited the center’s efforts to instill a love of learning in the children. “Now my daughter will pick up a book without anybody prompting her,” says Fen Zhen Chen, 32, speaking in Mandarin of her four-year-old daughter, Angel.

“My daughter, she loves to wear her toy stethoscope and pretend to listen to people’s heartbeats,” says Chen. She pauses and smiles. “Maybe she’ll be a doctor.”

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