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There’s a huge demand for the cooperative play programs operated by DC’s Department of Parks and Recreation. DPR will open 4 additional programs this fall and plans to add more in the future, but officials say there’s a limit to how much they can do to accommodate the many parents who want to participate.

Prompted by the urging of the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission, this spring DPR added 4 new programs to its popular Cooperative Play Program, for a total of 15 programs at 13 locations. Even so, demand was so high that the new slots were filled 15 minutes after registration opened.

The Co-op programs, which are open to children between the ages of 18 months and 5 years, meet 5 mornings a week at District recreation and community centers. A paid facilitator oversees each program, but parents are required to volunteer as “duty parents” once a week and to share responsibilities for providing snacks. Parents pay about $1900 a year, or $200 a month, to participate in the program, which runs from September to May.

Kishan Putta, a member of the Dupont Circle ANC, says that he started pushing for an expansion of the program after hearing repeatedly from parents that they didn’t have enough affordable child-care options. He originally asked DPR to open one additional Co-op location and demonstrated that there would be ample demand for it. He says he was pleasantly surprised when DPR decided to expand the program to 3 new locations.

The Co-op program has two components, one serving children from 18 to 29 months, and the other serving older children up to age 5. In addition to the 3 new locations, DPR will also add a program this fall for older children at the Columbia Heights Community Center, which already had a program for younger children.

When Putta saw the overwhelming response to the newly added programs, he decided even more were needed. He argues that DPR has “a lot of unused space” on weekday mornings, and that the costs of opening additional Co-op locations would be minimal.

“I won’t rest until they provide several more by 2015-16,” he said.

Obstacles to expansion

But Vanessa Gerideau, DPR’s Early and Middle Childhood Programs Manager, says that while she understands the need for more programs, it’s not that simple.

Each program costs around $45,000 to $50,000 a year. That includes the cost of equipment and the salary of the facilitator, who is a full-time employee with other duties beyond overseeing the Co-op program in the morning.

Gerideau pointed out that some locations can only accommodate 10 children, which means that the revenue from parents is only about $19,000, less than half the cost of the program.

Gerideau also said that not all recreation and community centers have spaces suitable for young children, especially when they’re housed in older buildings. For example, parents in the Dupont Circle area had pushed for a Co-op program at Stead Park, on P Street between 16th and 17th Streets.

But Gerideau said that the staircases were too narrow at the Stead building, and that there was no first-floor egress in case of emergency. Especially given that parents in the area wanted a program for younger children, those safety issues were insurmountable, she said.

Low-income parents

Putta also wants changes that would enable more low-income parents to participate in the Co-op program. He called for DPR to waive the fee in cases of financial need, and to move to a lottery registration system rather than one that requires people to race to their computers at 10 am on a weekday morning. That registration system excludes many parents with inflexible jobs and those who lack access to a computer, he said.

Gerideau said that DPR does offer a 50% to 70% discount on the fee when parents can demonstrate financial need. And she said the Department is planning to switch to a lottery system, along the lines of the new school lottery, for both the Co-op program and its summer camp program.

Putta also has called for additional Co-op locations outside of Northwest DC. Currently only one location is outside that quadrant: Turkey Thicket in Northeast, which is one of the newly added sites.

But Gerideau says that most of the demand for the programs is in the neighborhoods that already have them. She cites the example of Deanwood Recreation Center in Northeast, which had a Co-op program for 3 years until it closed in September 2013.

Gerideau says that initially all slots in the Deanwood program were filled, but families peeled off as they got into other Co-op locations off of waiting lists. In the end, only two children were signed up.

She says DPR intends to make use of the Deanwood space, which was designed with young children in mind. But she says a Co-op program isn’t the right fit for that location, and that DPR is exploring other possibilities in consultation with the community.

Lack of demand in some areas

Gerideau says the lack of demand for Co-op programs in low-income areas has multiple causes. The fact that the program is only half-day poses a problem for working parents, as does the requirement that a parent or caregiver work one morning a week.

But she says that waiving that requirement is not an option, because the Co-op program would then be classified as day care. That designation would subject the program to regulations that could interfere with its continued operation.

The Co-op is a “recreational program that is outcomes-based,” Gerideau said. She added that the purpose of the program is not to provide child care, but to help children grow socially and emotionally and get ready for school.

At the same time, Gerideau says that she understands that DC urgently needs more child-care options for young children—and especially, with the advent of universal public preschool, for children under 3. She says that about 90% of children in the Co-op program are 3 and under, and DPR is focused on expanding its services for that age group. But, she says, providing child care falls outside the Department’s mission.

“We want residents of DC to see us as their first option for recreation and leisure activities, and for out-of-school-time programs,” she said. “But we have to manage their expectations. We don’t want them to think we’re the catch-all for whatever the city needs.”

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.