by Christine Gerzon
In the Spring of 1975, I was teaching at Concord Academy while juggling childcare for my toddler daughter. I hired students to care for her when I had a class and when they didn’t show up, I took her to class with me. The only childcare available in town were nursery schools with a morning only schedule, clearly not an option for working mothers. There was no after school care either so elementary school parents had to scrape together childcare arrangements or leave their children alone until they returned home from work.
I was one of the 45% of working mothers across this country who struggled to find reliable childcare.
Desperate for a solution to my problem, I decided to start my own day care center. Fortunately, I met another young working mother who had just moved to town, from New York City where she had previously started a day care center. Her now two school age children needed after school care. She shared my vision of a children’s center that would offer working mothers reliable and flexible childcare.
My vision was inspired by three social movements of the time.
The first was from educators working in the field of early childhood development who knew that early childhood experiences deeply influence the rest of our lives. They knew that the early years of life are crucial for our emotional, physical and cognitive health. I had just completed my graduate degree in education at Lesley University and dreamed of opening my own progressive school for young children based on play and exploring nature where children would be free to learn by doing, using their all their senses in a safe setting with qualified early childhood teachers. These goals DEY are similar to the goals of DEY.
The second came from the Peace Movement. The Vietnam war had just ended in April of this year with the fall of Saigon. Young people had protested the US involvement in the war and the idea of world peace was one that motivated many of us to take action however we could. A popular saying at the time was, Think globally, act locally. As a teacher, I thought about what contribution I could make and believed in Gandhi’s non-violent approach adopted by peace activists.
His statement, If we are to reach real peace in this world, we shall have to begin with the children inspired me to recognize the vital importance of teaching children social and emotional skills while they were young.
The third grew from the Women’s Movement of the late 1960’s and 1970’s. While each year more mothers of young children entered the workplace, the lack of a national childcare system meant that women were piecing together their own often inadequate childcare. In a town like Concord, day care was still considered something that was appropriate only for women who “had to work”.
The idea of a day care center was a radical one at the time because it challenged two prevailing concepts.
The first was that it was primarily a mother’s responsibility to stay home to care for her children. The second concept was that if a mother chose to work, childcare was her own individual problem to solve rather than a shared societal responsibility. The Women’s Movement challenged these outdated ideas and helped highlight childcare as an underlying social issue of equal rights and government’s responsibility to families.
While European countries were already offering free or subsidized day care, the US lagged far behind without a comprehensive national program and unfortunately, not much has changed in the last 45 years. When Senator Elizabeth Warren was on the campaign trail for president in 2020, she often told a story of her difficulty finding care for her daughter and she never forgot her struggle shared by so many other working mothers. Warren has made childcare one of her signature issues emphasizing that it is an essential aspect of equal rights. She has urged the government to include childcare as part of the infrastructure bill.
Recently, Jill Biden and Kate Middleton released a joint statement reminding us that “there are few issues more worthy of our attention than the transformative power of early childhood care and education for our communities and nations.” President Biden has taken this statement seriously and included childcare as an integral part of his American Families Plan.
Even in 1975, the need for childcare in Concord was so urgent that we immediately attracted the enthusiastic support of many members of the community. Women activists helped us with all the legal and logistical tasks. Several families donated their energy, time and materials to build necessary equipment like a sandbox and playhouse corner.
That September, we greeted our first class of 15 preschoolers and an after-school class of 10 students. Each year, our program expanded the number of families we served. In 1981, to meet the growing demand, we opened a second location on the other side of town. Then in 1986, the center opened a third location for infants and toddlers. In 2001, the center raised a million dollars to build a new facility designed by a former parent and local architect. In 2020, the center purchased a historic farmhouse which is being renovated to include 6 classrooms and a community space.
Our first class of preschoolers are now approaching their 50th birthdays.
With an annual multi-million-dollar budget and three locations, the center employs 40 teachers and serves over 220 families. The center is much more than its buildings and projects. It is a community of teachers, parents and children, alumni, businesses and residents who have built strong bonds with each other. We have always been a non-profit school which allows us to focus on the needs of the children and keep our highly qualified teacher’s salaries competitive. While the center is a well-run business, our primary goal is nurturing children and supporting families.
During the pandemic, the center faced many challenges but with a strong staff, we continued to provide care remotely at first and then back in the buildings as soon as possible. The pandemic reminded us that we are all connected to one another and that our lives can change overnight.
It also highlighted one of the main missions of DEY — to advocate at the federal level for education policies that ensure access to quality early childhood programs for all children.
The world has changed dramatically since 1975. Technology has influenced every aspect of our lives changing the way we do business, interact with each other and entertain ourselves. What has not changed is the fact that women are still searching for safe, adequate childcare and that there is still no comprehensive unified social policy to support working families in this country. In 2020, over three quarters of working mothers worked full time.
With adequate, reliable, affordable childcare, families are healthier and more economically stable.
As we look ahead to the future, may the vision of reliable, universal and affordable childcare, equal rights for women and world peace finally become a reality in this generation. DEY is a vital part of this vision because it advocates for meeting the basic developmental needs of children and social policies that support working families. Fulfilling this vision will mean a stronger, healthier equitable country. We have waited long enough.
Christine Gerzon is a founding mother of the Concord Children’s Center. She was also a workshop leader for Engaging Schools where she taught conflict resolution and social and emotional learning. As a member of TRUCE, (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment), she spent many years advocating for children’s rights to a commercial free childhood. She is the co-author of the book, Human Earth Awakening.
You can read more of our blogs on young children – the way children learn, child development, authentic and self-directed play, and the policies that not only work against children but also hurt them here in our monthly blog.