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Learning To Care

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A North Carolina program that the White House is plugging rewards child-care workers for going to school.

Chapel Hill, N.C.

Six years ago, when Anna Mercer-McLean became the director of a small child-care center serving poor families here, most of the teachers in the program had no more than a high school education.Fifty percent of the teachers were leaving every year. And the children, many with special needs, were unmanageable.

"We had children bouncing off the walls because the teachers here didn't have the skills and abilities to work with them," Mercer-McLean says.

Today, Community School for People Under Six, as her nonprofit center is called, is hardly the most beautiful child-care facility in North Carolina's famed "triangle" region. Storage space is at a minimum, and when the weather is rainy or too cold, the children have to drive their riding toys up and down the narrow hallway because there isn't a playroom.

The children are still some of the most challenging to care for. Many have emotional problems. Some have been abused and are living in foster homes. And some are on the verge of becoming homeless.

But for more than a year now, not a single teacher has left the program. And most have earned or are working toward an associate's degree in early-childhood education.

"We made the commitment that we wanted to have educated teachers," Mercer-McLean says, as she enthusiastically accepts a piece of artwork, dripping with paint, from a proud preschooler. "You can see the difference in the children."

What made the difference, Mercer-McLean believes, is TEACH Early Childhood, the statewide scholarship and compensation program that is slowly, but dramatically, improving the careers of those who care for North Carolina's young children.

The initiative, which went statewide in 1993, is now getting national attention--not just from other states but from the White House as well. The popularity and success of TEACH have inspired President Clinton to include a $250 million TEACH-like program in his new package of child-care proposals. If approved by Congress, the program would cover 50,000 scholarships a year for five years.

North Carolina's TEACH--which stands for Teacher Education and Compensation Helps--is paid for by a combination of state and federal dollars and grants from private foundations. Totaling $1.5 million this fiscal year, the program covers most of a child-care employee's tuition costs and books. Upon completion of a year of study, the employee receives a bonus of at least $100 or a raise in salary.

Created and administered by the Day Care Services Association, a nonprofit research and advocacy group here, TEACH was the response to a 1989 North Carolina workforce study by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It showed that the typical child-care teacher in the state was making only $4.50 an hour and didn't expect to be working in child care in five years. The report highlighted at the state level the issues that have plagued the child-care field nationwide: Employees are so poorly paid that most don't stay in the business for long, leaving children and programs in a constant state of transition or turmoil.

Those who do get an education and want to work with infants and toddlers often wind up teaching in public schools instead because they can't pay their bills on the salaries they would earn in child care. Landing a job in the public schools, where a new teacher can earn an average salary of $24,500, would double the income for many center teachers.

The 1989 North Carolina study built on a national one conducted a year earlier that brought to light the connection between low wages for workers and low quality in centers. The National Child Care Staffing Study, which focused on 227 child-care centers in five U.S. cities, found that the most important predictor of good care was staff wages.

That report also noted that children who attended centers with high turnover--which is mostly determined by low wages--were "less competent in language and social development."

An update of the staffing study, done four years later, found that hourly wages for assistant teachers--a fast-growing segment of the workforce--had actually declined since 1988, from $5.16 to $5.08. Wages did increase for the highest-paid teachers, who earned almost $9 per hour, but the 1992 report indicated that most teachers never reach this level.

To make their point, child-care advocates often point to the average hourly wages for workers in other industries to illustrate how little value is placed on those who care for children. According to the latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, child-care workers make an average of $6.73 an hour--less than stock clerks, short-order cooks, janitors, manicurists, and parking lot attendants.

The staffing study gave credence to the longstanding laments of child-care workers and their advocates. For two decades, providers throughout the country--through a grassroots effort called the Worthy Wage Campaign--have organized marches, staged child-care-center closings, and sponsored other public-awareness activities to bring attention to the issue.

But still, little has changed, as the newest research will show. Results of that work will be released this spring.

"The significance of TEACH is that it is one of not many projects that puts dollars directly into the pockets of teachers," says Rosemarie Vardell, the director of organizing and leadership programs for the Washington-based Center for the Child Care Workforce, which produces the staffing study.

Education is far more valuable than experience alone, the North Carolina report also concluded.

"Another year of education could be expected to produce $493 increase in salary whereas another year of experience in a center would only net $123 more per year," the authors wrote.

"The significance of TEACH is that it is one of not many projects that puts dollars directly into the pockets of teachers."

Rosemarie Vardell,
Center for the Child Care Workforce

High-quality child care--and the importance of nurturing settings for young children--has been the focus of many magazine cover stories recently. Under the federal welfare-reform law that took effect last year, spending on child care has increased, but advocates say little has been done to improve compensation for teachers.

"If we don't address this, it doesn't matter what else we do," argues Sue Russell, the executive director of Day Care Services. "You can have really good ratios with really bad people. Or you have good ratios with people who leave all the time."

Even when teachers are required by states or their employers to take in-service training, there is little reward waiting for them.

"The saddest thing in the world is to have someone show up with a fistful of training slips, and you have to say to them that's basically worthless in the job market," Vardell says.

Since TEACH began in 1990, more than 5,000 providers in North Carolina--including center directors, teachers, and those who operate family child-care programs--have participated. At the least, they earn a North Carolina Child Care Credential, which requires four credits and can usually be completed in two semesters.

But most go after an associate's degree. And some have even used TEACH to earn a four-year diploma.

Built into the program is a component that automatically reduces staff turnover, because students sign a contract with TEACH and with their employers to stay at their jobs for a year after they complete school.

But beyond that, turnover among those in an associate's-degree program has fallen to 10 percent annually, compared with 42 percent statewide.

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