Kinder Academy at Bustleton UMC
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Excerpt from Kinder Academy by Allison King for Partners for Sacred Places. Originally published February 2015.
The Bustleton neighborhood of Northeast Philadelphia looks like a tidy suburban enclave of modest brick homes and well-kept yards. With its white spire and wide-columned portico, Bustleton United Methodist Church reinforces that impression. But this neighborhood of working-class families—home to a growing number of immigrants from India, Russia, and Eastern Europe—has been hard hit by the current economic crisis. And the Bustleton UMC childcare center, run by Kinder Academy, Inc., sees the economic impact in the children it cares for and educates.
“We serve the working poor,” says Leslie Spina, director of the Bustleton childcare center and founder and administrator of six other Kinder Academies throughout Northeast Philadelphia. “Seventy-five percent of our children come from single-parent homes; 56 percent are receiving subsidy. The majority are struggling.”
Nicole Spellman was certainly struggling when she moved to Philadelphia four years ago, newly single with two young children, no job, and no friends or family nearby. The Bustleton childcare center offered her a lifeline. Anytime she had a job interview, she could drop off her kids at the day care free of charge. Bustleton Kinder Care became an anchor for Nicole as she adjusted to her new situation and neighborhood. “People would give me directions, help me get to the places I needed to go—all the little things that make you feel welcome,” she recalls.
Kinder Academy boasts of “quality childcare that provides a structured preschool program with the convenience of daycare hours.” The childcare center at Bustleton UMC is the jewel in Kinder Care’s crown, made possible with the space and support offered by the congregation.
Kinder Academy has made vibrant use of the church’s underused space by repainting, restructuring, and retrofitting old auditoriums and screening rooms at Bustleton to serve as bright yellow classrooms for “Caterpillars” and “Butterflies,” the oldest preschoolers. The center and church coexist in a mutually beneficial (and mutually dependent) relationship. Several in the aging congregation volunteer as tutors or donate art supplies. One congregant, Al—better known to the children and staff as “Pop-Pop”—serves as resident tinkerer and fix-it man. “This is what a retro-fitted program looks like,” says Spina, waving her hand down a corridor of rooms that perform double-duty nights and weekends for Sunday school, scout troops, and AA meetings. “It’s more about the families [than the facility]. We make connections with the families.”
For Spellman, that connection continues to make a difference in her children’s lives. They still start their day at Bustleton’s day care so Nicole can get to work. And when she picks them up there at the end of her workday, she often lingers, making sure all homework is done before they go home. Besides, laughs Nicole, “they always seem to have the supplies—those glue sticks and scissors—I can never seem to find at home.”
The Kinder Academy program at Bustleton has long been responsive to children with special needs and their families, mainstreaming them into the classroom and accommodating their aides or individual assistants. With fifteen years’ experience in childcare, Spina knows how to help parents with special-needs children navigate the bureaucratic maze and learn what services the state offers. Her base at the congregation gives her a willing volunteer network to tap into. When Nicole’s son was struggling with reading, Spina arranged for an after-school tutor, a volunteer from the church, at no extra charge.
Such extraordinary attention and responsiveness to families’ needs is the ultimate mark of a day care center’s commitment to quality. “It’s all about relationship building,” says Cohen. Whether caring for infants or providing a safe and stimulating environment for elementary schoolchildren at the beginning or end of the day, the best day care centers are “like a second home for the child.” As Spellman and her children attest, that is exactly the environment Spina and her staff have worked hard to create at Bustleton. “They made us feel welcome when we knew nobody. We’re all very comfortable there.”
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