Taking Care of Children the Army Way
- Name of program: Army Child Development Services.
- Location: Fort Stewart, Ga.
- Children served: Ages 2 weeks through high school whose parents are either in the military or who are civilian employees of the military.
- Average cost: Fees are based on the parents' income level and range from $100 every two weeks for one child, $190 for two, and $90 for each additional child to $191 every two weeks for one child, $363 for two, and $172 for each additional child.
- focus: A full-service child-care center, home-based care, and school-age care center that aim to provide military families with high-quality, affordable child care.
Fort Stewart, Ga.
It is not yet 8 a.m. here on the largest Army installation east of the Mississippi River, but Dagmar Peguero's day is in full swing. As the director of the Child Development Center here Peguero is responsible for about 240 children, ages 2 weeks to 5 years, who spend their days at the center.
Her task is daunting, to say the least--and one made tougher on this chilly day in late February by the fact that a professional photographer has come to take photos of each age group. Amid questions from parents confused by the change in routine and from the "ed techs," as the center's caregivers are called, Peguero manages to navigate the window-lit halls with patience and grace. She stops several times to comfort the occasional crying child, calling each one by name, speaking to most in English spiced by her Puerto Rican heritage and to a few in Spanish. Peguero is part of what has become, according to many in the industry, one of the best child-care systems in the United States.
"The military has really been a pioneer in child-care issues," she says, and she isn't being boastful. The government has spared no effort--or expense--in making sure that the men and women who guard its interests have access to high-quality care for their children.
Nestled into a quiet corner of the post, which is home to the 3rd Infantry Division, and around the corner from a lot full of Iraqi tanks captured in the Persian Gulf War, the Child Development Center is a monument to the Army's commitment to child care. The building is modern, efficient, clean, and bright--a far cry from many of the World War II-era buildings elsewhere on the post. An industrially equipped kitchen--off-limits to everyone except those who work in its green-tiled confines--turns out two meals every day following guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Next door in the front office sit television monitors hooked up to cameras in the ceilings throughout the building. This allows center staff to observe children without intruding in the classroom, Peguero says, and parents can come in to see what kind of care their children are receiving. Videotapes of every minute of every day that the center is open are kept in case of abuse claims.
The center is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and is currently undergoing reaccreditation. Everything is done by the book--Army Regulation 608-10, to be exact--and there is a Standard Operating Procedure, or SOP, for everything.
The lead ed tech in each room must have an associate degree in early-childhood education, and every caregiver must go through an extensive background check before being allowed to work in the center. Almost 50 hours of training are required of new caregivers, and this training must be renewed periodically. But such a rigorous certification process is worth the trouble to most of the center's ed techs, for they are paid, Peguero says, at almost double the rate of independent caregivers in nearby Savannah; starting pay is more than $7 an hour, and most of the caregivers earn more than $11 per hour.
As she walks into each room, Ms. Peguero points out ed techs who have been employed by the Army's child-development services for 16, 20, or even 25 years. And this continuity, she says, adds significantly to the quality of care the center provides. In addition, because the child-care practices used here are the same at each of the 172 child-development centers at Army posts worldwide, military families have continuity in the quality of the child care available to them.
Such top-notch, state-of-the-art features, however, are anything but old hat in Army child care. With the passage of the Military Child Care Act in 1990, the Army set out to make its child-care offerings not only affordable and dependable, but also of high quality. The services provided by the Child Development Center are subsidized, and the military families pay for them on a scale based on grade and rank. It amounts to a lot of care for the money: "No longer do we offer simple custodial care, where the parents can just feel secure that their children are safe," Peguero says. "The children have opportunities to learn here."
The center's curriculum is dictated by Department of the Army guidelines but coordinated by Sharon A. Colmore and Bertha White, the center's training-and-curriculum specialists.
"We try to provide the best setting in which a child can learn at his or her own pace," explains Colmore, "and we concentrate on using developmentally appropriate practices." Each room--except for those occupied by the center's infants--is equipped with areas designed to develop motor skills, social skills, cognitive skills, self-help skills, and language expression. Signs in each room identify a block-building corner, a science activity station, and dramatic play areas.
Though some activities are planned, the children have the opportunity to play and explore on their own. "We approach children's learning through exposure, not drill," explains Gwen Hoffey, who along with Leah Cabey is an assistant director of the center. Some parents, she adds, don't understand that their child is learning even though they are not being actively led in the endeavor. "We are not just about school preparation," she says, "but about preparation for life as well."
As comprehensive as the Child Development Center's offerings are, the Army's child-care services extend well beyond its walls. To care for older children up through high school age, the Army offers school-age services at centers near the two elementary schools on the post. These centers open early in the afternoon and provide recreation--from video games to sports teams--as well as such enrichment opportunities as music or dance lessons. Space and a few computers are set aside for use by the older students to do their homework.
Younger school-age children can also go to one of the 56 homes in the Family Child Care program, which make up a major portion of the child-care services on the post. These minicenters are run by wives of military personnel in military housing under the supervision of James F. Neal, the program's director. Each provider, who is paid directly by the parents of the children she cares for, can have up to six children of any age in her home at any one time. Each home--identified by a Family Child Care plaque visible from the street--is set up in much the same way as the rooms at the Child Development Center, with several developmentally appropriate activity areas.
Much like the larger center, the family child-care program has its own training-and-curriculum specialist, who visits the homes on a regular basis. Caregivers must go through a rigorous training process similar to that required of the center employees and, in addition, must have their own emergency contingency plans. They prepare, and are reimbursed for, two USDA-approved meals each day.
With the irregular working hours of many military personnel and the ever-present potential of a rapid deployment, the Army must offer a high level of flexibility in its child-care offerings. The home-based services provide this flexibility, as caregivers working in their own homes can more easily provide long-term or specialized care. Some homes are designated special-needs homes, allowing the Army to provide more intensive care for children who are physically or developmentally disabled than it could in a large center setting.
The military philosophy in child care is that offering high-quality care is in its own best interest. A happy soldier, after all, is a good soldier. "If we can provide services that are superior to anything else available, then the parents will feel secure that their children are happy and can keep their minds on their jobs," says Linda A. Heifferon, who, as the Child Development Services coordinator, oversees the Child Development Center, the School-age Services, and the Family Child Care Program. "At the heart of it, we are mission-oriented," she says. "Our mission is to support the soldier."