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Schenectady day care treats clients and employees like family

Outlook

Schenectady day care treats clients and employees like family

A Magic Kingdom sets business apart
Schenectady day care treats clients and employees like family
Kathy Papa and Sue Ellen DeWeesein in 1979, left, and present day, right.
Photographer: The Daily Gazette file photo, left; Marc Schultz/Gazette photographer, right

In the fall of 1977, Katherine Papa was a 19-year-old newlywed working at a daycare. “I didn’t like the way it was run,” she said. Instead of seeking employment elsewhere, the teenager decided to start her own business.

She went to church after church, none of which were interested, until she found the United Methodist Church in Schenectady. The minister was willing to talk about the possibility of having a daycare in the church. In fact, he set up a committee of church members to explore the possibility. Sue Ellen DeWeese, then mother of a toddler, was on that committee. She had been on maternity leave, but was ready to go back to work as long as her son could go with her. A few months later, on March 6, 1978, Papa and DeWeese opened A Magic Kingdom, a daycare in the church.

The pair started out with no children in their charge. They went door to door in neighborhoods around the church, letting people know about the new services they offered. With no budget, they made fliers out of poster board and hung them up at local supermarkets. Papa brought all the toys that she and her brothers had at home. “It was very minimal,” Papa said.

Then A Magic Kingdom got its first customer, a nurse at Bellevue Hospital who had a little girl. For the first two months of the business, DeWeese and Papa cared for the girl from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. while her mother was at work. Then another mother brought her little boy. “His mother had to work until 7, so we worked from 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. just for two kids,” Papa remembered.

More kids came, and the pair welcomed children whenever parents needed child care – full-time or part-time.

Two years later, their clientele had grown so that they needed to hire their first employee, and over the past 39 years, the staff has grown to 23. In 1989 to accommodate the business’ continued growth, DeWeese and Papa were able to purchase a small church and built on a 175-foot addition on the back of it.

MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Kristin Krofft reading to children at A Magic Kingdom Nursery and Day Care Center
MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Kristin Krofft reading to children at A Magic Kingdom Nursery and Day Care Center

There are two stand-out factors that have contributed to the business’ success. One is being competitive with its pricing. Originally, the business charged $30 per week for full-time child care. Now, that rate is $250 per week, and the business only takes children full-time. “Our prices were always very competitive because we were both mothers,” Papa said. They understood the challenges facing working parents.

The other factor to its success has been putting their clients' families first. “We were very accommodating to the families that we had,” said Papa, noting that they cared for children early in the morning and late at night. “Parents looked at us as an extension of their families,” she said, noting that they even got invited to birthday parties.

While most parents’ views of daycare have changed, A Magic Kingdom’s family-like atmosphere has not, and that has allowed the business to retain its staff so that a child sees the same faces in classrooms throughout his or her years at the day care. Staff retention is a huge challenge for many daycare facilities, as the pay in the industry in general is low, Papa noted. She and DeWeese seek to counteract that by treating their employees like family members.

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Megan Rose of Schenectady, who began working at A Magic Kingdom as a 16-year-old is still employed there as an adult; she now works as a teacher in the youngest toddler room. “I wouldn’t stay here if it weren’t for them – they helped to raise me,” she said of Papa and DeWeese.

A Magic Kingdom’s family atmosphere also attracted Maureen VanDemark. “The day we came for a tour, they were doing a lesson about apples, and the kids were just so engaged and everybody was so friendly, and there was a real feeling of community here,” she said. She ended up enrolling her son. While he graduated in 2001, she returned in 2004 to become a teacher there. “I saw how they treated their staff and how they treated the children,” she said. “It’s a great place to work. I consider them my family.”

Erin Lowery, who graduated from A Magic Kingdom when she was 4 years old, came back to work there after she had children of her own. “It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” she said. “We take care of each other here. I can’t describe it any other way than family.”

Papa said that she and DeWeese do not hesitate to step in to help wherever needed. “We take off our director hats, and we put on our classroom teacher hats,” she said. “We have to be substitutes in the classroom a lot.” This is to accommodate any needs that staff might have, such as attending a parent-teacher conference. As mothers, DeWeese and Papa understand that families are important, and they make accommodations for staff in this regard. Papa said that A Magic Kingdom has minimal turnover in staff as a result.

DeWeese and Papa have seen many changes in the industry over the years. The state has increased its standards for day care facilities, which she sees as a good thing. State inspectors come every three months, and they look at a variety of things.

For example, years ago, the state did not inspect the playground, and now, a fire inspector comes to assess it.

While the adult to child ratio has not changed, the requirements for workers has. New York state requires daycare staff to have 30 hours of training in nine required training topic areas every two years, and state inspectors check on this. “They [the state] expect more from the teachers,” Papa said.

Another change is the educational requirements for children. From the start, Papa and DeWeese had a structured preschool program at the daycare, as their philosophy was to offer childcare that prepared students for kindergarten, and now, they have added to that.

VanDemark certainly sees increased educational demands. “Even down in my room where we have children 18 months old, we are introducing more lessons and more creative projects, learning through song and introducing that literacy aspect at a much earlier level,” she said.

Papa notes that even in infant rooms, teachers are reading to children, singing and playing with them counting blocks. Children graduate from the daycare knowing 30 sight words.

DeWeese and Papa see their business as an integral part of the community. “We have four or five staff members who live within walking distance,” she said. Paige Elementary School is across the street from the daycare. Having people living and working in the same community promotes a community feeling, Papa said. She said that she and Sue Ellen can’t go shopping at the grocery store without running into former children or parents, either as customers or employees of the store.

“It started out with two women who wanted to put their own families first, and they expanded to the community around,” Lowery said.

Today, in its 41st year, A Magic Kingdom serves 80 to 90 children from infancy through older children who require afterschool care.

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