The Bustleton neighborhood of Northeast Philadelphia looks at first glance like a tidy suburban enclave of modest brick homes and well-kept yards. With its white spire and wide-columned portico, Bustleton United Methodist Church reinforces that first impression. But this neighborhood of working-class families, home to a growing number of immigrants newly arrived from India, Russia, and Eastern Europe, has been hard hit by the current economic crisis. And the Bustleton United Methodist Church child care center, run by Kinder Academy, Inc., sees the economic impact in the children  it cares for and educates.

“We serve the working poor,” says Leslie Spina, director of the Bustleton child care center and founder and administrator of six other Kinder Academies throughout Northeast Philadelphia. “Seventy-five percent of our children come from single-parent homes; 56% are receiving subsidy. The majority are struggling.”

Nicole Spellman was certainly struggling when she moved to Philadelphia four years ago, newly single, with two young children, no job, and no friends or family nearby. The Bustleton child care center offered her an unexpected lifeline. Any time she had a job interview scheduled, she could drop off her kids at the day care for a few hours, free of charge. The Bustleton Kinder Care became much more than the place her children spent their days. It was an anchor for Nicole as she adjusted to her new situation and neighborhood. “People would give me directions, help me get to the places I needed to go – all the little things that make you feel welcome,” she recalls today.

While many day care centers that serve poorer constituencies provide the minimum services and facilities required for state licensing, Kinder Academy was founded to offer an alternative to the warehouse model of child care. Kinder Academy boasts of “quality childcare that provides a structured preschool program with the convenience of daycare hours.” And the child care center at Bustleton United Methodist Church is the jewel in Kinder Care’s crown, made possible with the space and support offered by the congregation. The day care center, preschool and after-school program has earned Keystone STARS’ highest rating— 4 stars—as well as accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children in 2005.

Keystone STARS is an initiative of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Office of Child Development and Early Learning, created in 2002 to improve, support, and recognize the continuous quality improvement efforts of early learning programs in the state. From home day care centers to facilities serving hundreds of young children, any program choosing to participate in Keystone STARS demonstrates a commitment to quality childcare, explains Keystone STARS Program Manager Zachary Cohen. The STAR ratings are based on strict performance standards, with four STAR levels that build on each other to encourage continuous quality improvement in staff professional development, curriculum standards, and facility environment and sensory stimulation. The system even assesses how well a preschool assists children in making the transition to kindergarten.

For Spina, the STAR ratings also affirm her decision to house her Kinder Academy programs in churches and other older, underused facilities. As she puts it, Keystone STARS values a challenging program above a “brand new, shiny” facility. “If that’s what you’re looking for, we’re not it,” she says. Instead, Kinder Academy has made vibrant reuse of the church’s underused space by repainting, restructuring and retrofitting old auditoriums and screening rooms at Bustleton United Methodist Church to serve as bright yellow classrooms for “Caterpillars” and “Butterflies,” the oldest preschoolers. At Bustleton, the center and church co-exist in a mutually beneficial (and mutually dependent) relationship. Several in the aging congregation volunteer their time as tutors or donate art supplies. One congregant, Al—better known to the children and staff as “Pop-Pop”—serves as resident tinkerer and fix-it man. “This is what a retro-fitted program looks like,” says Spina, waving her hand down a corridor of rooms that perform double-duty nights and weekends for Sunday School, scout troops, and AA meetings. “It’s more about the families [than the facility]. We make connections with the families.”

For Nicole Spellman, that connection continues to make a difference in her children’s lives. Now 7 and 9, Chloe and Caleb still start their day at Bustleton’s day care so Nicole can get to work at 8:00. And when she picks them up there at the end of her work day, she often lingers with them at the center, making sure all homework is done before they go home, where there are television and other distractions. Besides, laughs Nicole, “they always seem to have the supplies – those glue sticks and scissors – I can never seem to find at home.”

With many more families suffering economically, the Bustleton Day Care Center has gone well beyond what Keystone STARS requires. Enrollment has dropped, and Spina is concerned that children are being placed in sub-standard care or sitting home watching television. She understands that parents find themselves in a bind. Without work, they can’t afford child care; without child care, they can’t look for a job. The free half-day drop-off service Spina offered to Nicole Spellman four years ago has become standard for enrolled families whose parents have job interviews.

The Kinder Academy program at Bustleton United Methodist Church has long been equally responsive to children with special needs and their families, mainstreaming them into the classroom and accommodating their aides or individual assistants. With 15 years experience in child care, Spina knows how to help parents with special-needs children navigate the bureaucratic maze and learn what services the state offers them. Her base at the congregation gives her a willing volunteer network to tap into as well. When Nicole’s son Caleb was struggling with reading in school, Spina quickly arranged for an after-school tutor, a volunteer from the church, at no extra charge.

Such extraordinary attention and responsiveness to families’ needs is the ultimate mark of a day care center’s commitment to quality. “It’s all about relationship building,” says Cohen. Whether caring for infants or providing a safe and stimulating environment for elementary schoolchildren at the beginning or end of the day, the best day care centers are “like a second home for the child.” As Nicole Spellman – and Chloe and Caleb – attest, that is exactly the environment that Spina and her staff have worked hard to create at Bustleton United Methodist Day Care Center. “They made us feel welcome when we knew nobody. We’re all very comfortable there.”