By Daniela Bolanos
Finger paintings, pictures of smiling kids, and a colorfully decorated reception area greets anyone walking into the Princeton Nursery School, which serves mostly low-income families. Its house-like architecture and gray carpeting creates a sort of coziness. Inside a classroom is a young girl who is crying. The teacher eagerly goes to her side and asks what’s wrong. The girl looks down and a teardrop falls on her duct-tape covered shoes. Her parents had wrapped her old shoes in duct tape to keep them from falling apart. Her mom’s work hours had recently been cut and they couldn’t afford to buy their daughter a new pair of shoes.
This story—recounted to a group of reporters recently by Rosanda Wong, the school’s executive director— provides a glimpse into the lives of Princeton’s low-income community. While many see Princeton through a lens of affluence and status, the town separates two different communities through an invisible ivy-covered wall of socioeconomic status. On the one side, you have the wealthiest of the wealthiest who drive Porsches; on the complete other side, you have kids who are wearing shoes that are only being held together by old pieces of duct tape.
Wong—the kids call her Ms. Rose—understands the child-care crisis in Princeton, and she has made impressive efforts to do something about it. But she isn’t the only one. There is also the work of the Henry Pannell Learning Center, which partners with the Princeton YMCA to run an after-school program for low-income students called Princeton Young Achievers.
Leigh Zink, the Youth Development and Outreach Director at the Princeton YMCA, puts the challenge this way: “Cost of daycare is killer.” It is a silent killer, one that infiltrates homes and suffocates them until they have nothing left to give.
Princeton Nursery School and Princeton Young Achievers are making progress in addressing this problem, but they still face challenges of understaffing and funding. The institutions rely heavily on grants and donations to stay up and running. Most parents of Princeton Young Achievers only have to pay $20 a month for their children to participate in the afterschool program. Wong said Princeton Nursery School fundraises up to $250,000 per year for scholarships. As a result, the minimum the parents have to pay for the students at the daycare is $20 per month, but even this is negotiable. Wong is very generous about waiving a fee for a struggling family. She is able to do so by reaching out to companies such as Mercedes-Benz and persuading them with pictures and stories of adorable little kids with the biggest dimples and warmest smiles. Who can resist that?
Yet even with the significant amount of money that they raise, there are still issues, such as a lack of special education teachers in the facility. “I cannot afford it,” Wong said. In general, they are understaffed and depend mostly on volunteers.
These problems don’t stand in the way of providing quality education to the children of low-income neighborhoods. In a way, “their enrichment programs are sometimes better,” said Zink, with a chuckle. The kids at Pannell can learn about STEM and coding. Westminster Choir College helps the students host two performances a year; the kids also have “Art Fridays,” where local artists come in and teach them art. These children, unlike the ones who go to traditional after-school programs that cost upwards of $300 a month, often do not have the chance to join a sports club or take private art classes, so PYA’s enrichment programs are meant to fill in the gaps, Zink explained.
Similarly, the Princeton Nursery School has “a very strict curriculum,” said Wong. It not only sticks to the HighScope Preschool Curriculum of New Jersey, but also incorporates a stronger science curriculum. The school even started a gardening program where kids can take home the plants they grow. It doesn’t always take a whole lot of money and resources to provide a child with an extraordinary education, but instead it takes a whole lot of heart.
Wong and Zink have been able to make a difference in the lives of these children. They are giving them the confidence they need to take on the world. Regardless of all the obstacles these kids face, getting an education isn’t one of them. It is because of people like Zink and Wong that even students whose families struggle to afford shoes will see a brighter tomorrow.