An Added Perk:Districts Entice Teachers With On-Site Child Care
Melanie Reed was about to take a year off from work to spend more time with her two young children when her employer decided to open an on-site child-care center in the hope of keeping professionals like her on the job.
Now, instead of taking 4-year-old Luke and 2-year-old Haley to a sitter's home every day, Ms. Reed will bring them to work with her.
But she doesn't work for a Fortune 500 company with a lot of money to spend on fringe benefits: She teaches 1st grade in the roughly 2,000-student Buford, Ga., school system northeast of Atlanta.
When classes resume there next week, the district will be offering its 250 employees something that is still hard to find even in the corporate world.
"This is strictly a perk for employees," said Superintendent Tom Wilson, who worked with two child-care consultants to design the program.
Mr. Wilson, who worked for the Carrollton, Ga., schools before coming to the Buford district in January, said district officials got the idea for the center after hearing teachers talk about taking leaves of absence to stay home with their young children.
District officials figured that teachers and other employees with young children would be enticed to stay on the job if they could have their infants and toddlers cared for in a center close by. They also hope the center will reduce employee absenteeism because, among other things, it will be able to accommodate teachers' work schedules.
"Schools are like any other business," Mr. Wilson said. "You're in competition for quality people."
The district is opening a fourth school this year, which will serve grades 3-5. The new Buford Academy will free space at Buford Elementary School, where Ms. Reed teaches, to accommodate the new center. Buford Elementary will continue to serve K-2 students.
Initially, the center will serve about 15 children, ages 6 weeks to 4 years. It will operate year round and will be open to city employees in addition to district workers.
While the school system has spent roughly $42,000 to equip the rooms, ongoing overhead costs, such as rent and utilities, will be much less than they would for a typical start-up center. That will keep rates low.
Weekly fees will range from $70 to $90. Infant care in the area can run as high as $150 a week.
'Outside the Box'
Child-care experts say they have heard of similar programs at schools, but agree that they are rare.
The more common model of child-care centers on school grounds are those designed to serve students who are parents, making it easier for them to continue their education.
Some schools open their centers to the community and use them as laboratories for students who are studying child development or pursuing careers in the child-care field.
And there have been a few arrangements in which school-based centers serve both teenage parents and school system employees, but even those are not common, said Fern Marx, a senior research scientist at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass.
Ms. Marx conducted research on such programs about 10 years ago.
Staff members at both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers say the vast majority of teachers don't have access to on-site child care.
"This is the first I've heard of it," said Celia Lose, an AFT spokeswoman.
She added that such centers could be an ideal way to attract and keep employees. "It's clear that a lot of teachers and school employees have young children," Ms. Lose said. "I know that districts are having to think outside the box, beyond traditional salaries and benefits."
While the Buford system is entering some new territory this year, it's not the only district realizing that on-site child care is a sought-after benefit.
The Carmel Clay, Ind., school system, a growing, 11,500-student suburban district north of Indianapolis, is opening two on-site child-care facilities this month to serve its employees.
Those centers--one in a modular building at a junior high school, the other in an elementary school annex--will accommodate a total of 48 children this year, from infants to preschoolers.
The long-range plan is to add multiple centers and serve as many as 200 children, said Roger McMichael, the district's assistant superintendent for business affairs.
Like the Buford schools, the Carmel Clay district did not want to lose good teachers, Mr. McMichael said.
He added that the program might also allow for some interaction between employees' children and the preschoolers with special needs that the district already serves.
Mr. McMichael said school board members from his district considered several factors before approving the child-care program, including whether tax dollars should be used.
Even though the district will spend $150,000 to get the facilities ready, the intention is for the program to be self-supporting. Mr. McMichael said he views it as any other employee benefit, such as health insurance.
Questions also arose about whether the program would hurt business at for-profit child-care centers in the community.
But Mr. McMichael said that shouldn't be a problem in Carmel, which is in Hamilton County, Indiana's fastest-growing county.
"We've not heard at this point from the private sector," he said. "We're not going to put anybody out of business."
But Lynn White, the executive director of the National Child Care Association, based near Atlanta, said she hoped that districts interested in helping their employees with child care would use a different model that is common in the corporate sector: contracting with existing centers in the community.
"It's a win-win for everybody that way," Ms. White said. "The school gets what it needs, and you don't hurt the centers."
Since the centers in both Georgia and Indiana will be operated on school property, the districts do not need child-care licenses from their states.
District leaders say, however, that they are still modeling their policies--on staff-child ratios and health and safety practices, for example--after those followed at top-caliber private centers.
"Our goal," Mr. Wilson said, "is to make it as attractive and as high-quality as you can find anywhere."
Vol. 18, Issue 43, Pages 1,21