Staff discover hidden benefits of UCLA child care
Children in UCLA's Early Care and Education program play together outdoors, within walking distance of campus buildings where their parents work. Staff parents praise the quality of its services, the peace of mind it affords and the unexpected networking opportunities.
When April de Stefano was ready to put her 1-year-old son Lucien into child care, she worried about leaving him in a new place, with strangers, away from home.
"But then he got into UCLA child care," said de Stefano, the director of the Office of Postdoctoral and Visiting Scholar Services. "I don't feel that parent-guilt that people sometimes feel leaving their child somewhere, because I know he's so safe and having a great time."
That peace of mind frees her up to focus on work, and meeting other UCLA parents in the same boat has helped her form new friendships and office networks, she said.
ECE kids are encouraged to learn by investigating.
"It's a great two-for-one bargain," said Macdonald, the director of ECE, where de Stefano's son, now 3, spends his weekdays. "The children get high-quality care, and the parents can be at work and not feel guilty. A hidden advantage is all the networking that goes on."
The 340 child-care spaces go fast, and the long waitlist is almost as well-known as the high quality of ECE's care. But this fall brought an expansion. With the newly opened UCLA Westwood Child Care Center, operated by Bright Horizons Family Solutions, the campus child-care pool added 220 spaces. For the first time, one of the waitlists has even disappeared: There are still two available spots for 4-year-old preschoolers in ECE in September, not to mention preschool spaces still available at the Bright Horizons center.
"Bright Horizons has increased our capacity by two-thirds," Macdonald said. "That's a pretty remarkable record for a campus, especially in the midst of a recession."
Reem Hanna-Harwell, the assistant dean of humanities, snagged a spot at ECE when her 4-year-old, Luke, was 1. Aside from singing the praises of the ECE staff, Hanna-Harwell sees other advantages.
"It's a great equalizer and microcosm of the campus, where you see the Nobel Prize winner next to the receptionist," she said, noting that no matter who people are professionally, they all become just parents when they meet at ECE. "We're all the same when it comes to our children. There, I'm 'Luke's mom.' It's humanizing."
The Bright Horizons center in Westwood Village, run separately from ECE, greatly expanded UCLA's child care availability.
At the child care center, she meets people she once knew only via e-mail, getting a chance to put a face to the name, she said.
"It has given me a sense of community with other parents across the campus," Hanna-Harwell said. "There's the shared experience of being a working parent, and relationships with people I otherwise never would have known. Suddenly I have a completely new, informal grid of contacts in other departments."
One of her new acquaintances is de Stefano, whom she sees daily when they drop off their sons. "We literally run into each other every morning," de Stefano said. "There are connections, community and networking. It's like when people play golf together."
That provides social and psychological support that people don't always think about, Macdonald said. "People meet each other here, daily, for years. It's not like a one-off event. So these connections are very strong, and it eases work between departments on campus," she said. "At any child-care center, you would make friends, but it wouldn't necessarily help with your job, too."
Another benefit UCLA parents cherish is simple: It's location, location, location. When Hanna-Harwell's 7-month-old, Jesse, got sick on Monday, she was able to pick him up immediately, she said. Susan Abeles, the special assistant to the administrative vice chancellor, had two children in ECE in the '80s, and it allowed her to breastfeed on her lunch break and participate in her daughters' activities.
ECE makes sure even the toddlers are exposed to a science curriculum.
"As a working mother, that was really important to me," Abeles said. "It cemented my commitment to UCLA and wanting to stay here."
Just as seeing her children during the day was important to her, knowing that they would be okay when she was busy was also vital. Her first daughter didn't get into ECE until she was 15 months old, Abeles recalled. Though she loved the family daycare that ECE referred her to off-campus, the additional commuting took a toll, and the caregiver's rigid hours kept her from working long days.
"Another problem in family daycare is if the provider is sick, there's no daycare that day. ECE always has backup," Abeles said. "In the formative years of my career as I was moving up and getting more responsibility, it was really critical to me to have that child care available on campus. The flexibility and reliability made it possible for me to focus entirely during the day on getting my job done and concentrating on my career."
Mike Olsson, the administrative officer for the Chancellor's Office, echoed Abeles' comments. Olsson also had two children in ECE in the '80s.
"It made me a better employee by giving me peace of mind and the ability to focus, and in other ways that aren't measurable," Olsson said. "And there were little items of serendipity, when I would happen across my children in the middle of the day when they were on campus for an activity. It was so unexpected and so much fun to be greeted by 'Dad!' It melts my heart, still."
UCLA child care has expanded dramatically over the years, from 95 spaces in 1991 – and a waitlist of more than 800 – to 560 spaces now between ECE and Bright Horizons. ECE's waitlist is still there – more than 350 people are waiting for infant care and 230 for toddlers, although the waitlist for 4-year-olds has disappeared. But parents in ECE say the wait is worth it.
Some of ECE's littlest charges observe each other.
"The wait list is long, and it speaks to the quality of the program," Abeles said. "I can't speak highly enough of the program and the staff. I try to encourage people to sit out the wait list, because you can get in – and if you're planning to have another child, you have a toe in the door, because they give priority to siblings."
The cost also discourages many parents, Macdonald said: as much as $1,580 per month for infants, down to $1,250 for preschoolers.
"It's not ECE that's expensive," said Hanna-Harwell. "It's child care, period, that's expensive."
The Faculty and Staff Child Care Support Program, a need-based tuition scholarship from funding set aside by Chancellor Gene Block, cuts up to $415 per month off the ECE bill. Families making under $120,000 can apply. For de Stefano and her partner, a teacher, the subsidy keeps their bill to $1,000 per month.
"When we were looking at other places, UCLA cost a little more, but then we got a subsidy, so suddenly UCLA was the same or less as other places with higher-quality care," she said. "The pay may not be as high at UCLA as in other industries, but those kinds of benefits make it worth it."
Between quality care, the location and the community networks, de Stefano couldn't be more pleased.
"ECE is a perfect example of how having this resource can enhance both the personal and the professional life," she said. "That's what's so rare. Usually you have a marked separation. This exemplifies the best practice of having a work-life balance.
"Well," she said, correcting herself, "maybe not perfect balance, but at least helping you manage the two."