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Day-Care Center Teaches Commitment : Echo Park: It was founded 20 years ago by self-described progressives who believed in fostering political and social awareness.


Eric Haun sat on a pastel picnic table, sunglasses perched on his head, sandals dangling from his dancer's feet. Amid the din of frolicking children and chattering adults, the 21-year-old told of the legacy of the Echo Park-Silver Lake People's Child Care Center.

"I'm a pacifist," said Haun, who about 20 years earlier had been a diaper-clad toddler at the child-care center. "This was the beginning. This is where it all started."

The People's Child Care Center celebrated its 20th anniversary Sunday with a festive party at the one-story facility, nestled between small houses at the foot of an Echo Park hillside on Lake Shore Avenue. The event brought together former and current students, parents, teachers and administrators. It also prompted countless stories about a once-controversial day-care center born in a garage that eventually won over City Hall.

"The history of this school is a history of a people's commitment and love of their children," center founder Ruth Beaglehole, 46, told a clapping crowd of toddlers and grown-ups at the party. "In those beginning years, it was this intense sort of coming together. Today, we've come together again."

Such historical tidbits were standard fare at Sunday's celebration.

Beaglehole started the center--affectionately known as Playgroup--in a double garage on Vendome Street in 1970. The center's humble lodgings were next to the Food Conspiracy, an "anti-Establishment" food cooperative, and below the apartment of then-teacher Jackie Goldberg, now president of the Los Angeles Board of Education, Beaglehole and Goldberg said.

Beaglehole, who was married to Goldberg's brother, and others who ran the center were self-described progressives who believed in teaching political and social awareness to youngsters. And they wanted to provide day-care services to their mostly poor, largely ethnic communities--Echo Park, Mount Washington, Silver Lake and Glassell Park. So they offered the day-care to neighborhood families for as little as $20 a month.

Los Angeles city zoning laws quickly forced Playgroup into a recreation center in Elysian Park, where teachers frequently chased off stray dogs. But Beaglehole, accompanied by parents and an army of children clad in diapers, protested at City Council meetings to demand that day-care centers be allowed in residential neighborhoods.

Eventually, zoning codes were changed, and about two years after it opened, Playgroup moved into an old grocery store on Lake Shore Avenue, a facility purchased by the city and turned over to the operators of the center, Beaglehole and former teachers said.

About 15 other day-care centers were set up in similar fashion, said Bernard Lambert, a community development analyst who oversees the city's grants to the centers. Like the Echo Park center, they now receive funding from the city to help keep child-care costs down for mostly low-income clients.

The center receives about $60,000 from the city to help provide day-care to about 30 children. Last year, the center got a $135,000 face lift funded by the city that made it wheelchair-accessible, Lambert said.

But funds were not always available. In the mid-1980s, federal cuts in Housing and Urban Development funds threatened to close down the People's Child Care Center. Again, Beaglehole and the children marched to City Hall to protest, and with support from some city officials, the facility stayed open, Beaglehole and Goldberg said.

Today, the center's relationship with the city is a comfortable one, city officials said.

"I guess those problems were in the past," said Bill Garcia, an aide to City Councilman John Ferraro, whose district includes Echo Park. "As far as we're concerned, the center is an asset."

But little else has changed at Playgroup since its residents haggled over zoning laws and funds, administrators and teachers said Sunday.

"The ideals and the goals really are no different," said Suzanne Burrall, director of the center. "What we always have wanted these kids to leave with is a sense of self-love, a sense of respect for each other and a desire to make a difference in the world."

The children, Burrall said, have discussed Nelson Mandela and South Africa, Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights. They have had politically active and openly gay teachers; their parents have been racially mixed couples and single mothers. They have been visited by women firefighters and male dancers. Their classes are taught in three languages: Spanish, English and sign.

"Way back in the beginning, I was accused of reading the red book to kids," said Beaglehole, who quit as the center's director in 1983. "But I was just this naive, young woman, a trained teacher, who wanted to start a school--one that was non-racist, non-sexist, non-homophobic, one that raised consciousness about physically challenged people."

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