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student parents
Irena Butcher is all smiles after receiving her nursing pin at Borough of Manhattan Community College, with her 3-year-old daughter, Charlie, and partner, Semiv Ali. Charlie has been going to school with her mom while she gets her degree. Credit: Liz Willen/Hechinger Report

NEW YORK — Before beginning her studies last week, 37-year-old Irena Butcher dropped her daughter Charlie off at preschool. She returned for a visit a few hours later, grabbed a hug, read a few chapters of Dr. Seuss’s “Fox in Sox,” then headed back to classes that could stretch well into the evening.

Through it all, she never had to leave campus.

Borough of Manhattan Community College’s Early Childhood Center offers a lifeline for student parents, with high-quality childcare available daytime and evenings, including on weekends. Parents can visit their children anytime, and thanks to a sliding scale and multiple funding streams, none pay more than $35 a week.

Irena Butcher loves being able to read to 3-year-old Charlie in between classes at BMCC, and Charlie loves going to school with her mom. Credit: Liz Willen/Hechinger Report

Three-year-old Charlie loves going to her own classroom while Butcher goes to hers. “She knows that I’m going to school,” said Butcher, who got her associate’s degree in nursing from BMCC in December and is preparing for board exams. “We talk about it. Mommy is studying to give people shots.”

I met Butcher while spending a day watching the comings and goings at BMCC’s center in downtown Manhattan, which serves about 300 parents a year at the City University of New York’s largest undergraduate college campus. Childcare is offered on all of CUNY’s 17 campuses, a rarity at a time when many are cutting back.

Related: With number of student parents up availability of child campus care is down

I hoped to observe on-site, subsidized childcare, wondering how it might boost abysmally low graduation rates for student parents. There are many reasons why this issue matters, among them renewed concern about poor U.S. college completion rates. That means more attention is now being paid to the one in five college students who, as parents, are more likely to drop out, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

National data suggests that parents are 10 times less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree within five years than students who don’t have kids. At the same time, concerns over slipping enrollments means schools must attract more non-traditional students like Butcher, who attended college for a few years in her native Slovakia but left “due to lack of ambition and motivation,” she said.

For Butcher, having childcare on campus has been both a lifesaver and a surprise. She came to the U.S. to work as an au pair and didn’t think about a career in nursing until after she got pregnant years later.

“I know what it’s like to be a student parent, what it’s like to work and go to school and be concerned about your child. It’s hard. It’s a lot of work. I have a lot of admiration for these families.”

“Charlie was my motivation,” Butcher told me, during a break from studying. “I was watching the nurses and I thought, this looks rewarding, this what I’m missing. And I just couldn’t imagine taking care of other kids while my own kid was in day care. I had to build a future, so I went back to school.”

Children are more often obstacles to studies instead of motivation, though. Just 28 percent of single moms graduate from college with a degree or certificate within 6 years of enrolling. Budget cuts have forced reductions in childcare at many campuses.

Paying for college and childcare simultaneously is another deterrent: Childcare costs are more than in-state tuition at public colleges in at least 30 states.

Campus childcare seems like a logical way to eliminate that obstacle. BMCC first opened its center 30 years ago, with just two classrooms.

Now, there’s an entire wing with six classrooms, each with a head teacher and one assistant teacher, along with extra support from interns, volunteers and students on work study, including some parent students whose children are at the center. There’s no waiting list for the program, which serves preschool children 2 to 5 years old, and school-age children 6 to 12 years old.

Brooklynn Rivera, 20, is another parent I met. She wants to become a surgeon and commutes daily to BMCC from the Bronx with her 2-year-old son Brysen, who is on the autism spectrum and gets therapy at the center. In high school, Rivera did well and planned on trying for a scholarship so she could attend a four-year college – until she became pregnant.

Brysen was born prematurely in her senior year of high school, so Rivera began taking college courses online and became part of CUNY’s ASAP program (Accelerated Study in Associate Programs), which provides free tuition, intensive counseling and help with everything from subway classes to child care.

Rivera now takes calculus, biology and chemistry at BMCC and hopes to transfer to CUNY’s School of Medicine. Brysen’s dad works retail to help support the family. After classes all day, Rivera studies every night. She’s always tired, but isn’t complaining. “Without this [center] there is no way I could do this, no way I could be in school,” Rivera told me.

Related: 10 years later, goal of getting more Americans through college is well behind schedule

Mélida Ortiz, a mother of four, works part-time at BMCC’s childcare center while studying for her degree. Her daughters Sophia, 5, and Juliete, 7, attend the center after school. Credit: Liz Willen/Hechinger Report

Mélida Ortiz, a 40-year-old mother of four originally from Ecuador, works weekends as a home health aide and part-time at the center in its work-study program. She wakes up at 4 a.m. to study for her modern language and Spanish classes at BMCC, and plans on transferring to Brooklyn College next year as part of a path to become a speech pathologist.

I found Ortiz in between classes drawing with her daughters, 5-year-old Sophia and 7-year-old Juliete, while their regular school in Brooklyn was on break. “They love it here because the teachers are amazing,” Ortiz said. “And I can work and go to school. It’s like paradise.”

The girls come to the center after school and her husband picks them up and takes them home. “I wish I had known about this years ago,” she said. “I didn’t go back to work with my youngest because child care was more than I was earning. Now, I’m thinking about actually graduating, and it is going to be a dream come true for me after such a long time.”

Related: Many student parents drop out because they don’t have enough time for their schoolwork, research shows

During my day at the center, I sat through an orientation session for new parents whose kids had recently enrolled. Snacks and books were available at the front of the room, along with a guest (a staffer dressed up like Clifford the Big Red Dog as part of a Scholastic book fair).

“I had to build a future, so I went back to school.”

Pizza was served, and parents had a chance to ask executive director Cecilia Scott-Croff questions about the center, which is near a lovely park and playground with Hudson River views. There’s an indoor pool nearby and free universal pre-K on site.

“How is it going?” Scott-Croff asked one new mother, whose child had started a few weeks earlier.

“My son is come home singing every day,” the mom replied. “He wakes up and says, ‘hey, I’m going to school.’ He’s excited to see his friends and he’s continuing his potty-training outside the house.”

Related: These formerly homeless single moms beat the odds and are now college grads

Scott-Croff, who has been at the center’s helm for 13 years, empathizes with parents who didn’t go to college right away. She’s one of seven children of parents with no higher education, and her own plans of attending Queens College after high school were derailed.

“I had a hard conversation with mom, who told me she had no money for me to go to school,” Scott-Croff recalled. “She told me to get a job first. It was a bit of a crushing blow. It knocked the wind out of me.”

Scott-Croff took a job as a file clerk at a bank. She later started early childhood education classes at BMCC, quit her bank job and became an assistant teacher. She then went on to get two master’s degrees from City College and a doctorate in executive leadership from St. John Fisher College.

“I know what it’s like to be a student parent, what it’s like to work and go to school and be concerned about your child,” said Scott-Croff, who has a 9-year-old son on the autism spectrum. “It’s hard. It’s a lot of work. I have a lot of admiration for these families.”

Because parents are working and in school part time, they drop in and out of childcare, so it’s not always easy to track their graduation rates. However, Monroe Community College researchers in Rochester, New York, found that parents who used the campus child care center had higher persistence rates from one fall semester to the next – 68 percent compared to 51 percent of students who did not use the center, IWRP reported.

Just 28 percent of single moms graduate from college with a degree or certificate within 6 years of enrolling. And at many colleges across the country, budget cuts have forced reductions in childcare.

Scott-Croff is among those who are glad to see more attention being paid to the needs of student parents. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a pilot program now underway that provides free on-campus child care for single parents. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) recently introduced a plan to help student parents with childcare.

In addition, an array of foundations are encouraging innovation by supporting a million dollars in prizes for solutions that will help parents, including Imaginable Futures – a venture of The Omidyar Group – and Lumina Foundation, both of which are among The Hechinger Report’s many funders.

In the meantime, Scott-Croff finds rewards in little victories – like watching children grow up and flourish and getting thank you notes from parents like Butcher. “There is absolutely no way it would have happened without you and all of the support you give to us student parents,” she wrote to Scott-Croft after her pinning ceremony, the symbolic welcoming of newly graduated nurses into the profession.

When Butcher first began at BMCC, she took classes at night. Her partner, Semiv Ali, who was in law school at the time, would park outside the school so she could leave class and nurse Charlie in the car.

Charlie became a regular at BMCC’s center when she turned two, and now looks forward to seeing her friends and teachers every day. “She loves it here,” Butcher told me. “She was sick last week and wanted to know, ‘When are we going back to college?’”

This story on student parents was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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