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Childcare Center Celebrates 20th

February 21, 2000

Judith Zwolak

When the Newcomb Childcare Center first opened its doors in October 1980, the only space available to house the 40 children of Tulane faculty, staff and students was the basement of Josephine Louise House residence hall. The two-room facility was dark and musty and regularly flooded after even the slightest rain. The teachers who worked in the center had surprisingly strong feelings about their tiny, dank corner of campus.

"It was fun," says Iria Williams, a teacher at the center. "We loved it there," agrees Carolyn Doss, a head teacher. "It was really nice. It was like home." Despite the drawbacks inherent in the center's location, the place radiated with love and collegiality, the teachers say. "It was like a big family," Williams says. "The parents were a big part of the center and would come and help us clean and paint."

Williams started working at the center on the day it opened and remains there today at the center's current location on the corner of Broadway and Plum Street. Other veterans include Doss (who started at Newcomb in 1982), head teachers Pat Brown (1981), Eunice Johnson (1984) and Elvia James (1984); teachers Karen Moran Foy (1987), Beatrice Thomas (1988) and Audry Shanks (1987) and cook Lillie Dyer (1987).

A relative newcomer is teacher Patricia Enderline (1995). When the average tenure of a daycare worker is six months, the longevity of the teachers at Newcomb is extremely rare, says Elaine Joseph, director of the Newcomb Children's Center, which comprises both the childcare center and the Newcomb Nursery School.

"Teachers here really have formed a bond with each other and the children," Joseph says. "Other places don't have an intimate environment like we have here."

The center has cared for more than 600 children since 1980, when Alan Davis, then head of residence life, found the space and resources to start a daycare center for children of Tulane employees and students. Pat Schindler, director of the Newcomb Children's Center until her retirement in 1996, had just started working at Tulane when the childcare center opened.

"We were still renovating but we opened up with one little boy," Schindler says. Within a month, the center housed 10 children and within a year, it was at capacity with 40 kids, she says. Periodic flooding wasn't the only annoyance teachers endured while in the basement of J.L. House. Newcomb students who lived in the rooms above the center were the biggest nuisance.

"At exam time, they would throw water on us if we took the kids outside to play," says Brown. "Then they would come at night and get into our supply cabinet and take our supply of crackers and all of our milk crates."

Schindler recalls J.L. residents pulling fire alarms at nap time to see the teachers and children scurry outside. When $400,000 in bond money came available to renovate the nursery school and a Tulane-owned house adjacent to it, Schindler says she jumped at the chance to refurbish the house and dedicate the entire structure to the childcare center. The center opened at its present location on Labor Day 1986.

Currently, the center serves 48 children, from 15 months to 5 years old, in four different classrooms. Demand for the services provided by the center continues to grow, says assistant director Christie Oleaga.

"Our waiting list is the size of the center right now," Oleaga says. Future plans include building new structures for the childcare center and the nursery school as part of the strategic plan of the Newcomb dean, who oversees the children's center. Joseph says she would like to expand the number of children in the childcare center to 70. "But all this is in the thinking-and-dreaming stage right now," Joseph says.

More concrete are plans to phase in a different style of caregiving at the center, one that pairs teachers with children for longer periods of time instead of advancing children to the next classroom and different teachers at yearly intervals. This concept, which Joseph calls "continuity of care," builds a foundation of trust between teacher, child and parent, she says.

"In places where they do this, they find that deeper, more binding relationships form," she adds.

Joseph also stresses that the center maintains a commitment it made from the beginning, to help employees on the low end of the salary scale afford the center's tuition, which now ranges from $360 to $385 per month. Although some scholarship funds were lost in the fiscal belt-tightening in the mid-1990s, there still remains some tuition assistance for families who need it.

"I think we're the most diverse place on campus considering the wide range of salaries of parents who bring their children here," Joseph says. That diversity appeals to the teachers, too. "I love working with children," says Brown, a 19-year-veteran. "But the diversity here makes it different from other places. We've had children from so many different cultures, people from Ecuador, China, Mexico, Algeria, India."

The teachers' commitment to their job matches the parents' respect for the care given to their kids, says Lourdes Mega, associate director of financial aid and one of the earliest clients of the childcare center.

"The same people who took care of my daughter in 1983 are there today, and that says a lot about their dedication," Mega says. "They were like second mothers to our children. They held them and rocked them and they were very good to us parents."

For the people who work at the center, the rewards of their jobs are remarkably tangible. "You don't make much money in this field," Oleaga says, "but you can get 48 hugs each day."

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