The demand for day care is higher than the supply as parents search the Tri-Lakes area for available facilities to drop their children off at while they work.
Many of those parents are on waiting lists.
The Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake public school districts offer universal pre-kindergarten programs - free to parents and taught by certified teachers - for a limited number of 4-year-olds. But in Lake Placid, where the school district does not offer pre-K, St. Agnes Catholic school is taking advantage of the demand by beefing up its pre-K and day care program, even as it eliminates grades 4 and 5 next year due to low enrollment.
Children play this week at Kids-R-Us day care center in Saranac Lake.
(Photo — Olivia Pepe)
Like many programs, it has a waiting list.
"Registration dates are first given to families who have siblings in grades K through 3 or are parish members," St. Agnes School co-principal Catherine Bemis said. "Otherwise it goes by who signed up first."
She and pre-K teacher Madonna Barney are excited to come closer to meeting the demand.
"It won't have to be a rush for parents anymore," Barney said. "This way they'll know they're being taken care of."
The preschool program will be year-round, beginning this fall. Bemis said the summer pre-K program will be "less formal and involve more outside time." Barney said that during the summer the children will have a daily routine, "like planting a garden outside."
While this may not sound educational, Bemis disagrees.
"It's the science of planting a garden," she said. "Education is a different focus and more hands-on for 4-year-olds." During the summer program, "They're going to be focused on problem solving, coping and socializing rather than the basic school-year things."
"Learning those things in the classroom during the pre-K years are crucial to the development of the child," Barney said. "It's more than just a safe place. It's preparing them for life."
At Tender Care Tot Center in Ray Brook, director Deb Sior said she's been hoping to expand because demand has been so high.
"We've always had a waiting list," she said. "I've never had to put an ad in the paper or do any marketing. I just made room for two families who've been on our waiting list for over two years."
Sior said she had talked to Saranac Lake Central School District officials about leasing the Lake Colby School, which the district plans to close at the end of this school year, but the two sides haven't been able to come to terms on a lease price.
If people can't find the child care they need locally, Sior worries it could impact the economy.
"What we've seen is that parents who can't get day care, they look other places for jobs," she said. "They leave."
In Saranac Lake, Kids-R-Us' day care program is full, but business owner and administrator Colleen Locke doesn't think there is a crisis in the lack of day care facilities.
"Certainly when after-school programs close there is a strain, but it's not a huge crisis." She said it has been like this for the 15 years since she opened her business.
"Every year is different; it may just be a bigger birth year. In two years there could be openings in everyone's program," Locke said.
Locke said she believes the only area of the Tri-Lakes seriously affected is Lake Placid.
"They have no child-care facility there," Locke said. "It was a smart more on St. Agnes' part to cater to the families there."
Locke said she encourages parents on the Kids-R-Us waiting list to call regularly.
"You never know when something is going to open up or when families are going to move." She also said that if the rare case comes up and the family needs day care right away, she will network with peers in the day-care field and ask if there on any open spots.
Sarah Pratt, who runs Timber Tots DayCare out of her home in Tupper Lake, knows of the waiting list frustration.
"As a parent, I know how stressful it can be to find a qualified day care," Pratt said.
Timber Tots is licensed to take up to 16 children. When Pratt has a waiting list, she said she will inform the parents of other day care openings in town.
"Tupper Lake is more of a community with their day care facilities, rather than seeing themselves as competitors," Pratt said.
Like St. Agnes in Lake Placid, Northern Lights School in Saranac Lake has dropped older grades - in this case those beyond grade 1 - and focused more on preschool, starting in 2010 with its Big Dipper program.
"It's one day a week for two-and-a-half hours for moms to drop off their 2-year-olds to have a little mommy time," said Wynde Reese, Northern Lights' board president.
The school had already developed its Little Dipper program.
"This is for ages 3 and younger for the parents to bring the children around to socialize with one another while the parents are socializing with each other and sharing experiences and tips with one another," said Patty Beauharnois, the secretary there.
Northern Lights currently has no waiting list. It costs more than most preschool programs, but it isn't a typical day care center. It's a Waldorf school.
"We strive to connect back with nature," Beauharnois said.
This proves true upon entering the school and seeing the classroom's structural support posts dressed up with cloth to look like trees. The majority of the items the children there sit on or play with are made of wood. Not only does the staff serve organic foods to the children, but the children learn how to make bread. They also learn how to sew.
"Everything is instant now," Beauharnois said. "We just teach them patience because not everything happens in an instant; it takes time." She also said these activities help children develop their motor skills.
"We also have them do a lot of movement and storytelling, which also helps them develop," Beauharnois said. "For example, the teacher will set a theme which corresponds with the season and use stories and food to go along with it. It's interesting to find that the students will incorporate the story into their free-time play."
Northern Lights has no summer program this year, but Reese hopes to reintroduce it for next summer.
"That's only going to happen if we get enough interest, like we have in the past for the summer program, and if we can find a staff member or someone else to run it," Beauharnois said.
Currently for fall 2011, Northern Lights has 23 children enrolled in pre-K through first grade. Beauharnois said the school will probably advertise this summer.
"We're hoping to develop a sort of a unity circle here and then hope to expand to the parents, and then to the community as a whole," she said.
Enterprise Senior Staff Writer Chris Knight contributed to this report.
Olivia Pepe is a journalism student at SUNY Oswego who is interning at the Enterprise for six weeks this summer. She lives in Massena.