The Brownstone Learning Center occupies a narrow, three-story building in one of Manhattan's older neighborhoods, where the tightly packed stone and brick houses still have a semblance of 1890s charm. Inside No. 128 West 80th Street, a dozen two- to three-years-olds are milling about the ``Red Room.'' One youngster, Kibwe, firmly places a bright-yellow hard hat on his head, as Evelyn Vicent, a full-time assistant at the center, asks, ``You off to work again?'' Kibwe scurries toward a cluster of other hard-hatted children, and Ms. Vicent settles in with a group that's learning to make Easter greetings using the time-tested waxed-paper transfer method.
It's the kind of scene Dr. Lona Tannenbaum, director of the center, has seen thousands of times during her 30 years in the child-care field. But she's quick to point out that, while there's always been a substantial need for day care for children of working parents, today's child-care ``environment'' is notably different.
``Acceptance of day care is really what's changed, across all working groups,'' she says. ``Twenty-five years ago the idea of leaving children with strangers was not acceptable.''
As Dr. Tannenbaum's busy center hints, day care has become not only acceptable, but a fairly universal practice for families in this largest of American cities, as in other parts of the country. New York is one of the few United States cities that provides full public funding for child-care centers. Very low-income families can participate at virtually no cost.
The relevant statistics for New York, as nearly as they can be pinned down, are that over 46 percent of children under 18 have working mothers. A recent survey by the Pre-School Association Inc. estimated that the city's publicly funded day-care programs are able to accommodate about 22 percent of the pre-teen children that need care, or a total of 42,010. Another 39,724 are enrolled in private programs. Many others are in family day-care situations in private homes.
The Brownstone Center bridges the divide between public and private day care, drawing on both public money and private tuition.
A central problem facing day care in New York is too few teachers, according to Annice Alt of Child Care Inc., an agency that distributes information about child-care issues and serves as a resource center for day-care providers. ``It's a horrendous problem,'' she says. In this city, she notes, full-time staffers in publicly funded day-care facilities are required to have the same credentials as elementary teachers in the public schools. That means that the two systems -- school and day care -- are often competing for the same personnel.
One might have thought that New York's recent decision to extend kindergarten to a full day would have relieved some of the pressure on child-care centers, since many parents in fact opted for a free day at school rather than paid time in day care. But that hasn't been the case, says Ms. Alt. ``There has been some shift of children, but an even greater shift of teachers,'' she explains. The reason? Very logically, many former day-care staffers moved into the city's expanded kindergarten program, where the employee benefits -- paid vacation, for instance -- are far greater than what's offered in the average day-care program.
Also, public school teachers in the city draw substantially higher salaries than day-care teachers. In 1982, the former averaged $34,324, including fringe benefits, according to figures published by Child Care Inc. The average for day-care faculty was $15,676.
New York State is considering extending kindergarten to four-year-olds. But Ms. Alt predicts that move would simply accelerate the shift of resources already set in motion by the full-day policy -- leaving the day-care staffing conundrum unresolved.
Exacerbating the problem of finding adequate staff is the exploding concern about child molestation at day-care centers. Last summer, instances of sexual abuse of children came to light at centers in the Bronx. In the wake of those much-publicized incidents, the city government greatly strengthened its system of screening prospective day-care personnel -- including fingerprinting and a thorough check for criminal records.
While acknowledging that the reforms were well motivated, Ms. Alt emphasizes that ``the trouble with this system is that it's very cumbersome, very slow.'' Her agency estimates it can take from two to six months before a day-care director can hire someone full time. Meanwhile, she adds, the teacher has probably taken another post in a private program or with the public schools. The latter are allowed to hire new teachers on a per diem basis, an option not open to day-care facilities.
Dr. Tannenbaum has noted some changes, too, in the wake of heightened concern over child abuse. Parents spend more time visiting the center before deciding to use it, she says, and they're ``very quick to come in with anything that sounds a little peculiar.'' But you have to remember, she cautions, that little children are ``very imaginative -- many say yes to anything.'' There have been several accusations against her center, she says, but ``they haven't amounted to anything.''
A further irritant in the new climate of enforcement, says Ms. Alt, is the tendency of some recently hired city day-care inspectors to nit-pick about rules -- criticizing centers for putting ``grapes'' on a menu instead of ``seedless grapes,'' or for failing to serve milk immediately with lunch, when the staff's purpose was to hold off on the milk for a few minutes so the children wouldn't fill up on that before eating anything else.
She has no argument, however, with the idea of inspection. In fact, Ms. Alt wishes the city had the staff to consistently visit all its hundreds of publicly and privately run day-care facilities. That might get at one of the perennial gaps in the system: the lack of hard statistics.
Back at the Brownstone Learning Center's ``Lilac Room,'' one flight up from the ``Red Room,'' teacher Sherry Dohm and an assistant are overseeing an alternately studious (playing the card-matching game) and boisterous (clambering around a sturdy orange jungle gym) group of four- and five-year-olds.
As she vigorously stirs up a bowl of fresh applesauce for lunch, Ms. Dohm shares some of her views on day care's current challenges. ``It's not hard to find people,'' she says of staffing, ``but it's hard to find the ones you want.'' Just as she gets that thought out, a towheaded lad trots over to report a violation of rules in the jungle gym. ``That's not a place for spaceships to stay,'' the teacher tells one of the other boys in a tone of voice that makes it clear rules are not to be broken.
``I think there are a lot of people out there -- you just have to find them, and find them when you need them,'' she continues. Ms. Dohm is a fully licensed teacher and holds a master's degree. ``It really bothers me that we're thought of as baby sitters, not teachers,'' she confides. ``Sure, we wipe noses, but we do a lot of other things as well.''
At a time when a sizable proportion of the nation's children are learning how to do everything from tie shoes to get along with others at day-care centers, that may safely be considered an understatement.