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Dour economy keeps day care attendance down

The gold rush days of endless glitter and glue are over at Kairos Child Development Center in Modesto, at least for now.

These days, thanks to a drop in enrollment because of the slow economy, school supply purchases are kept to the bare essentials, said director Karma Souza.

"I've been in the child care business for close to 30 years," she said. "Two years ago, we were ordering new stuff all the time. Now, we're just ordering paint and paper."

The school has a stockpile of other supplies, so it's not as if the students have gone Spartan, Souza said. But spending is one of the things she and several other child care providers have cut back on in an effort to ride out the recession.

Many Central Valley child care providers are facing noticeable dips in enrollment. The drops range from 5 percent to almost 50 percent, making child care providers look at how to cut costs and keep the families they have happy.

Souza said her school has seen a 30 percent to 50 percent drop in enrollment throughout the year. She said in an average year, her center serves 40 to 50 families. This year, it has 26.

"We have definitely seen a decrease in enrollment," she said. "Some people have lost jobs, some who do work are having family watch their children."

With full-time preschool ranging from $140 to $200 a week at many Modesto-area centers, families are often quick to cut back on such serv-ices.

Modesto resident Rafael Sakellariou and his wife have pulled their three children out of day care this summer. Sakellariou lost his job as a restaurant manager in June, and the first thing the family did was take the children — ages 6, 3 and 1 — out of five-day-a-week care.

"Without two incomes coming in, there was no way we could afford it," he said. "It's terrible to say that, but it was the first thing to go. It's probably the most expensive thing per month. It's more expensive than the house."

He is saving about $2,000 a month on child care. Still Sakellariou, who is working on completing his teaching credential, said as soon as he finds a new job, his children will be back at their preschools.

"My son misses it right now," said Sakellariou, who's had children at Kairos for five years. "He asks on a daily basis when he gets to go back."

At Merryhill School in Modesto, the drop off hasn't been quite as dramatic. But Principal Sheila Yarbrough said the preschool has seen a 5 percent to 10 percent decrease in enrollment. She said she also has seen more turnover, with some families leaving because of the economy and others joining because both parents need to work.

The school cut its summer infant-program rates to hold onto and attract customers. It will keep the reduced rates through the fall. The five-day-a-week program went from $207 to $197 a week.

Yarbrough said more families are waiting to enroll their children as well. Normally, parents would start making a commitment by March or April for the fall session, which starts Sept. 8. By mid-July, fall classes used to be full. Now, in late August, the school still has some openings.

"People are being more hesitant to make a commitment," she said. "People are not sure if they'll have a job next week. So they will wait to the last minute to enroll."

'A nerve-wracking time'

At Methodist Tiny Tots Day Care Center in downtown Modesto, Director Soni Sinclair said that at this time of year there typically is a waiting list five families deep. This year, she has five openings.

The school offers a full day care program with a preschool component. She said she has seen parents pull their children out of school completely and others cut the number of days or hours their children attend. Some students who came for a full day maybe only come for half.

The school has about 26 children enrolled, while the average was 30 to 36. She said because of the high unemployment rate in Stanislaus County, she is not sure when those numbers will turn around.

"It's a nerve-wracking time. I don't know if our own local economy is going to get worse for families or if it's bottomed out," she said. "So as a provider, we ask what else can we offer families to keep them here. It's important to highlight what you can offer."

She said the school offers parenting programs and alternative payment programs. She is looking into ways to offer lunch and breakfast.

The school has kept its tuition steady this year, and the staff has not received raises.

The teachers at Kinder Care in Modesto have had their hours cut in an attempt to control costs. Director Carrie Van Winkle said the equivalent of one full-time teacher's hours was cut among her 18 staff members.

Van Winkle said her preschool is at about 60 percent occupancy, compared with 70 percent last year.

Besides cutting hours, Kinder Care has kept tuition, $164 a week for full-time preschool, steady. Van Winkle, who has been at the preschool for eight years, said there is normally a 3 percent to 5 percent increase every August. But she said all the measures may be paying off.

"We're hanging in there, we really are," she said. "This is hardest year since I've been here. But we're seeing some good stuff happening now. It's slowly getting better, so that is exciting. Hopefully, it gets better quicker rather than slower."

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or 578-2284.

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