Struggling Mom and Pop Businesses – Chinese Childcare Providers in NYC Have a Hard Time Keeping Up

EarlyLearn home-care providers Bi Qing and Zhuo Hao Zheng in their apartment in Chinatown where they care for four young children; photo: Janie Shen

In 2012 New York City launched EarlyLearn, a program to overhaul the largest subsidized childcare system in the U.S.  Low-income immigrant families who rely on home-based childcare have been especially affected by EarlyLearn.  A new report by the Center for New York City Affairs (CNYCA) at The New School, has found that EarlyLearn’s reform requirements often fall short of addressing the cultural and linguistic realities of home-based care for young children.

This article, the first in a series, was written by Janie Shen, a former student in the Feet in 2 Worlds journalism course at The New School.

“The biggest pressure is writing the observations,” says Bi Quing Zheng in Mandarin, who with her husband, Zhuo Hao, takes care of four children of Chinese heritage, in their public housing apartment in Lower Manhattan.

“We are so busy all day; it’s a full-time job watching the children…. There is no time to be taking notes.”

Zheng says she could not have met EarlyLearn’s documentation requirements without help from her son and daughter who translate her bimonthly observations of the children from Chinese to English.

Her experience echoes that of other non-English-speaking family providers in the city’s family child care system. Struggling and challenged by the amount of paperwork, many enlist their family members to translate and write their paperwork in English. Some have even resorted to paying for an English speaker to do the paperwork, a practice that Carmen Rivera, Director of family day care at University Settlement, describes as “sad,” as providers make very little money to begin with—as little as $28 a day for a toddler.

EarlyLearn attempted to improve the quality of education in family childcare by asking home providers to use the same standards as preschool teachers in full-staffed child care centers.  This included using a standardized curriculum, writing lesson plans and conducting child observations.  The city also continued to contract with “network” organizations to recruit, monitor and support family child care programs, as well as to help the providers meet these new quality standards.

But network support staff like Rivera say they struggle to fully support those who are not fluent in English, and that the EarlyLearn reform did not take into account the non-Spanish and non- English-speaking providers.

A serious oversight, Rivera says, since immigrant parents often seek out family child care providers like Zheng who will speak to their children in the same language they speak at home. One network staff member says that on visits with family child care providers who speak neither English nor Spanish, she has resorted to communicating with providers entirely through hand gestures.

University Settlement, an EarlyLearn network on the Lower East Side that has a large number of Chinese-speaking providers, is unusually fortunate in having Chinese-speakers on staff. It enlists them to translate trainings for providers from English to Spanish and then to Chinese, a process Rivera calls “really tedious.” Rivera’s staff also translates the observation forms providers must fill out. But sometimes even this is not enough.

Pik Shan Lam, a family provider with University Settlement, says she spends hours each week struggling with observations, even though the network lets her write them in Chinese.

“My 17-year old son sometimes has to translate my Chinese words to English in the computer to help me find out how to write the correct Chinese symbols,” she says. She’s required to use a specific education terminology, and Lam says that her lack of higher education and language skills makes this nearly impossible.

EarlyLearn family child care programs are open from 8:30 in the morning to 6 at night. “I get up at 6 in the morning to cook for the day,” says Bao Na Li. Now, at the end of the day, after the children have gone home and after cleaning up, she must also do paperwork. Because she is paid per child she looks after, the extra time she spends on paperwork lowers her hourly pay that is already quite low. (See “Scraping By,” p. 31 on the new report by CNYCA).

Lam and her husband, who partners with her in their group family child care program, both complain that they have not been adequately compensated for this extra work. They continue because they “have to,” and in a few years they plan to retire.

Diana Perez, director of home-based child care services at WHEDco in the Bronx, says that this is a sadly common response to EarlyLearn from providers who are struggling with its documentation requirements. Those without education or English, she adds, “are more than likely the casualties of EarlyLearn.”

This article by Janie Shen is part of a report, Bringing it All Home: Problem’s and Possibilities facing NYC’s Family Child Care, from the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School. The report focuses on home-based centers in the city’s EarlyLearn program.

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, an anonymous donor and readers like you.  

AboutJanie Shen
Janie Ziye Shen is a researcher and photographer based in NYC. Born in China, Janie grew up in Sweden and has studied and worked in the UK, Belgium and Lebanon. She is currently a M.A. candidate in International Affairs at The New School with a research focus on refugees, migration and mobility. Before moving to New York, she lived in Beirut and worked for Save the Children on child protection in the Middle East region. She also organized language classes for local migrant workers and refugees there. Janie is fluent in English, Mandarin, Swedish and French.