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Bringing Up Baby at Work

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When Mark Frankel began looking for a new principal's post, he made his chief requirement quite clear to prospective employers: adequate child care for his 4-year-old son Josh.

Mr. Frankel and his wife, Marie, who is a teacher, "wanted to preserve the best of both worlds," he explains. "We spend so much time bringing up other people's children that I felt I might as well look for the best for my child."

After turning down several jobs that did not meet this family need, the Virginia educator found precisely what he was looking for in the Arlington, Va., school district in suburban Washington. Officials there offered him both a principalship and a spot for his son in the district's employee-owned-and-operated day-care center.

Although the Arlington facility has been open for only a month, it has already been dubbed a strong recruitment tool by school officials. And as districts nationwide scramble to recruit and retain teachers, offering such child-care options may mean the difference, others note, between hiring and losing well-qualified employees.

"I think it's going to be the fringe benefit of the future, no doubt about it," said Margaret McCourt-Dirner, an elementary-school principal who heads the employee board that runs the Arlington center. "As new people are hired, it's one of the first things they're told about."

Only 600 of the approximately 6 million employers nationwide provide day care for their employees' children, according to the Conference Board. And there are far fewer on-site child-care facilities that are run and owned by employees.

While other school districts offer day-care programs for workers, Arlington's program is believed to be the first in a district its size to be funded and operated by employees.

Child-care needs are especially acute in the Washington area, where more than half of all mothers return to work before their child reaches his or her first birthday. In Arlington, only one other center accepts infants.

The Arlington facility will be able to serve a maximum of 70 children between the ages of 2 months and 5 years. It has been funded through a loan from the employee credit union and is able to charge below-market fees for its services. Within five years, school officials say, they hope to adopt a sliding-scale fee system.

Mr. Frankel, now the principal of Yorktown High School, calls the child-care center "a tremendous inducement to come here." His wife is working as a part-time teacher in the district and drops Josh off at the facility, which is located in a former school mid-way between the two parents' workplaces.

The first such employee-owned center for school employees was opened in Park City, Utah, in 1984. It currently serves 30 infants and toddlers from 7:30 A.M. to 5:30 P.M.

Ron McIntire, Park City's superintendent, said the center had helped the district retain veteran teachers.

"We don't have a teacher shortage," he maintained. "We have a shortage of good teachers. You're out after that top 10 to 15 percent, and you do everything you can to keep them."

Mr. McIntire said the center has boosted staff morale because parents have been able to "go in and have their lunch with their kids."

And because the center is self-supporting, he added, its budget will not be in jeopardy during periods of retrenchment.

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