About two dozen parents endured frigid weather this past weekend, camping out in 20-degree temperatures at a Chicago park to secure after-school care for their children.
Parent Michelle Gaona arrived at Sheridan Park in the Little Italy neighborhood 18 hours before registration opened for the park’s low-cost after-school care, nabbing the second place in line. Her son goes to a school nearby.
Park District rules force Gaona and lots of other parents across the city to re-register every three months. But at Sheridan and other parks adjacent to schools, the spots are filled as soon as they open up.
“It would be nice if the city and the park district could help a little bit more, and see the struggle. I mean, it’s 23 degrees outside!” Gaona said. “We all pay taxes. I have to live in the city because I work for the city. And it’s sad – I have to freeze outside.”
Near her, a couple families slept in tents. Many went back and forth all night between the camping chairs that held their places in line and the idling cars where they were keeping warm.
“The practice of camping out overnight to register for park programs is not prohibited but also not recommended,” the Chicago Park District wrote in an email response to WBEZ questions. “One of the benefits of online registration is that it minimizes camping out and long registration lines. Local parks determine the number of online and in-person program slots based on community registration trends,” the email said.
One couple with five children said they’ve been registering for after-school care for 20 years, and they think it’s getting more competitive. “Before, we’d get here at 4:30 a.m., now it’s the day before,” said Tania Simanis.
Many parents camping out said they make too much to qualify for a daycare subsidy. At $40 a month on average, the Park District offers one of the city’s best deals on school-aged childcare. At the nearby school, Galileo Academy, a YMCA after-school program costs $290 a month.
“With two kids, that’s more than a car payment,” said Cori Stankowicz, who has two children at Galileo and slept in a blue tent on the sidewalk (she was number 4 in line).
Back when Stankowicz was searching for a school for her children, the proximity of the park after-school program was a big selling point. A Galileo teacher walks students to the Sheridan Park field house every day, solving a problem faced by lots of working parents in Chicago—what to do with children who are dismissed hours before the normal work day ends.
But kids at the school don’t get priority for the park’s after-school program. And the mad rush at Sheridan happens at other parks too, especially those adjacent to schools.
Stankowicz and other parents describe elaborate efforts to register for after-school care through the Chicago Park District’s online registration system.
Awais Sultan said his family logged onto the site an hour early, and he had his mouse hovering over the registration button. “And right away when it becomes active I clicked the button, and it said, ‘You’re in line.’ And then after a few minutes it was like, ‘You’re on the waiting list. You didn’t get a spot,’” said Sultan. Other families had multiple adults trying to register the same kids.
Families that don’t get a spot through the online system can compete for what’s usually far fewer seats set aside by parks for in-person registration. Hence, the overnight camping.
Another headache for parents: siblings don’t get priority, so parents can get one kid registered and not another. And many parents go through this whole process every three months.
Besides Sheridan, 10 parks saw their childcare slots scooped up as soon as they were available.
“You have to come back every season, like spring, summer, winter—to do the same thing, which is quite a hassle. Once you get your kid in, then they should stay in.”
With about 12,000 children participating in 2017, after-school care is one of the park district’s biggest programs, after swimming lessons and summer camps. That’s a drop in the bucket in terms of the number of kids in the city. It’s just 5 percent of grammar school kids in Chicago Public Schools.
Parent Tavares Biggs said for every parent that gets a slot in the after-school program, many more are turned away. He said he sees how that plays out later, with parents telling their children to wait for them at nearby fast food restaurants, for instance.
“Which is not safe because college kids and anybody could walk in there. In the summertime they just send them to go sit in the park and wait to be picked up.” Another parent said one girl whose family didn’t get a spot has her wait in the park fieldhouse doorway every day.
“As a taxpayer, this is an antiquated system. You mean to tell me this is the best we could do as far as offering services for families?” said Biggs.
Parents say there need to be more slots for more children, especially in parks near schools. And coordination between the parks and the schools should be improved, they say.
Most Chicago public schools offer no consistent after-school care, especially not until 6 p.m.
Park District officials say if a park fills up, they’ll help parents find other open programs. Parents say the point is to have childcare near their kids’ schools.
Linda Lutton is a reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her @LindaLutton.