Growing Number of Schools Are Filling Demand for Child Care

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Independence, Mo--Schools in this Kansas City suburb have added what administrators refer to as a new "tier" to the traditional functions of a school: full-time child care for the offspring of working parents.

School doors remain open well before classes start and after they end, extending the regular school day with breakfast, study time, snacks, naps, and play.

Before school, 3- to 5-year-olds can be seen building ships of Legos, coloring, stacking toothpicks in a bottle--or even, in one classroom, watching chicks hatch in a makeshift glass incubator.

After school, children of all ages can6choose activities ranging from art and outdoor play to computer games and foreign-language lab.

Besides school-based child care, the district provides parenting classes and home visits for parents of infants from birth to age 3, referral services for parents seeking infant and child care, and training for day-care providers in the community.

Independence--as well as the more rural Platte County, Mo.--are among a growing number of school districts attempting to make schools the ''hub" for child-care services in their communities.

"We've just expanded the front tier of what schools do," said Robert Henley, superintendent of the Independence public schools.

The Missouri experiment--dubbed the "School of the 21st Century"--is modeled after a concept outlined by Edward F. Zigler, Sterling Professor of Psychology at Yale University and director of the university's Bush Center in Child Development. (See Education Week, Feb. 3, 1988.)

Officials say the effort has been enthusiastically received by parents seeking "one-stop" child care in an established neighborhood institution.

Advocates of the concept acknowledge, however, that a major infusion of funds from state and federal sources or private foundations may be needed to replicate the model on a broad scale.

They cite the difficulty of securing funds to subsidize care for low-income children in poor communities--and of paying child-care professionals competitive salaries while keeping programs affordable for parents.

Some predict it may be years before schools have the capacity to assume a major role in the child-care arena. But those who have launched such efforts say they do not foresee backing off.

Community support for the Independence program has been "phenomenal," according to Mr. Henley. "We could never get out of the business now," he said. "We're in it for life I'm sure."

Schools' Role Growing

The trend toward school-based child care has been fueled in recent years by growing numbers of single and working parents, concerns about the safety of "latchkey" children, and "increased interest" in the benefits of early schooling, according to Matia Finn-Stevenson, associate director of Yale's Bush Center.

One of the earliest and most ambitious efforts to base child care around the schools was launched by the Pomona Unified School District, which began offering child care from morning to midnight in 1972.

The program now has a $3.5-million budget and operates 15 centers providing year-round care for infants above six weeks old, preschoolers, school-age children, and ill children who cannot attend regular classes.

According to preliminary data compiled for an upcoming report on school-age child care by Wellesley College's Center for Research on Women, thousands of schools now operate before- or after-school programs or host such efforts in partnership with other providers.

In seven states that provided detailed data in response to a survey for the center's School-Age Child-Care Project, about 17 percent of school districts were reported to have "some involvement" in providing such services.

That figure roughly approximates the percentage of districts nationwide offering the services, according to Dale B. Fink, senior project associate.

In contrast to five years ago, Mr. Fink said, more than half the districts with programs provide services both before and after school to accommodate working parents. And it is becoming "more and more common," he said, for schools to keep programs operating on holidays during school vacations.

Mr. Fink also noted a "burgeoning new interest" in after-school programs at the middle- and junior- high-school level to help combat the "destructive behavior" that can lead adolescents to drug abuse, pregnancy, or gang activity.

Relatively few schools have instituted full-day child care for preschoolers, experts say. But the number of states funding some type of prekindergarten program has nearly quadrupled in the last 10 years, making public schools "a small but essential and growing element in the early-childhood system," according to Anne Mitchell, an associate dean at the Bank Street College of Education.

More Than 'Bits and Pieces'

While schools across the country have instituted "bits and pieces" of a child-care network, Mr. Henley said, the "school of the 21st century model" in Independence and Platte County offers a more "comprehensive" approach.

The program offers home visits, counseling, health screening, and parenting classes for parents of children from birth to age 3 under the state's "Parents as Teachers" project.

For working parents with children enrolled in child care, the project schedules screening, play sessions, and meetings between parents, "parent educators," and child-care providers at school sites, said Sue S. Russell, a coordinator for Parents as Teachers.

In Independence, a resource center set up in 1976 to assist parents seeking services for handicapped children has been expanded to offer child-care referrals.

The schools also offer training for child-care staff and community providers in conjunction with Yale's Bush Center, a University of Missouri at Kansas City extension program, and Parents as Teachers.

Ten of 13 Independence elementary schools provide before- and after-school care for kindergarten to 6th-grade children, and two sites serve 3- and 4-year-olds. The program includes about 1,100 children.

The smaller, more rural Platte County offers before- and after- school care for school-age children at two elementary schools and preschool care at one of them.

Officials stress that all child-care activities are designed to be "developmentally appropriate" and are not intended to be academically taxing.

"This is not an extension of the school day," Mr. Henley said. "We don't make any attempt to correlate this to the academic program."

In the mornings, children participate in board games, craft projects, or puzzles, or read quietly alone or aloud to a younger child. They are served breakfast shortly before school starts.

Kindergarten children receive a half-day of instruction and a half day of less-structured care.

After-school activities include outdoor play, speakers and special guests, computer and language labs, and naps for the younger children.

Each school has a "site coordinator"--generally a teacher or professional with experience in child development--who oversees the care program under the supervision of the building principal.

The effort was launched with nearly $200,000 in private foundation grants and some state funds for start-up costs, but it is largely supported by parent fees, which range from $8 a week for before-school care to $45 a week for full-day care.

Officials in Independence say en8rollment in the first year of their program has far exceeded their expectations.

"It has hit a very receptive chord in the community and the school district," Mr. Henley said. "Popular demand" for the program, he said, led officials to expand the pilot from six to 10 schools and enabled the district to "break even" on operating costs within one month--rather than the two years officials had projected.

"It's a safe, secure, and comfortable environment for children, and their parents don't have to worry," said Al Van Iten, principal of the Sycamore Hills Elementary School in Independence.

'Answered a Need'

The program also instills a "sense of family among children of different ages" and abilities who play and read together, notes Gregg McPherson, principal of the East Platte Elementary School and coordinator of Platte County's 21st Century program.

The program has brought "noise and lots more traffic" to school hallways, observes Sheila Wheaton, a teacher at the Blackburn Elementary School in Independence, but it has "answered a need."

Teachers' initial concerns about whether the program would encroach on their classrooms or materials were allayed at the outset by "clear guidelines" on the use of equipment and space set by the principal, said Jana L. Hansen, a 2nd-grade teacher at the Blackburn School.

While it is difficult to predict whether the effort will boost children's academic success, Ms. Wheaton said, the program is aiding their social development and broadening their experience.

Cindy Yount thinks her daughter will be less intimidated by school as a result of her experience in the preschool child-care program. "She'll be familiar with all the other kids and teachers--it won't be as strange to her."

Although the preschool component of the Platte County program has attracted fewer participants than anticipated and is under review by the school board, the program appears to be popular with parents.

Candace V. Scott, who has two children enrolled in child care at the East Platte Elementary School, says the program had helped her 3-year-old develop language and social skills.

"She's becoming more of a person than a couch potato watching Sesame Street all day," she said.

The school setting is convenient for working parents and also sets out a constructive "schedule to follow" for children, she added.

"I'd probably watch television or talk on the phone if I were at home," noted Megan A. Palmer, a 9-year-old who attends after-school programs at the East Platte school.

Strapped By Costs

Despite the popularity of such programs, however, experts say the schools will not be in a position to assume major responsibility for child care without financial help.

The Independence school district has raised nearly $10,000 from foundations and service organizations to help provide scholarships for children whose parents cannot afford to pay the full child-care fee.

But officials are seeking $40,000 to $50,000 a year to aid poor families or those adversely affected by divorces, job losses, and other financial setbacks, Mr. Henley said.

"If you are going to serve low- and moderate-income families, you have to have a sugar daddy somewhere," said James R. McCabe, superintendent of the Leadville, Colo., schools, which have housed child-care programs for 2- to 13-year-olds in a newly renovated school building that had been closed down.

Although the district receives some federal and state aid and operates its program on a sliding-fee scale, Mr. McCabe said he devotes a significant share of time to fundraising.

Securing funds to supplement parent fees for school-based care in urban areas with high poverty rates poses an even greater dilemma, experts say.

Suburban schools generally can support the programs through fees they charge parents, acknowledged Mr. Zigler of Yale, but "it's an immense problem when you put them in the inner cities."

"You will not find many in urban school districts," observed Ms. Mitchell of Bank Street College. "This is not a solution that's going to help poor kids, and that's who need it most."

Little Full-Day Backing

Although early-childhood programs are more heavily subsidized by states than those for school-age children, they are more costly because they require additional classroom space and adaptations to meet state and local child-care licensing rules, Mr. Fink noted.

A study on early-childhood programs in public schools conducted in 1987 by the Wellesley center and the Bank Street College of Education found that while a growing number of states are underwriting pre-kindergarten programs, most do not offer full-day child care.

"Nothing major has taken place to change our findings," said Fern Marx, a co-author of the study.

"The greatest encouragement toward full working-day programs in the public schools is going to come with the infusion of some federal money," she predicted.

The Congress, which failed to enact child-care legislation last year, is currently eyeing a host of proposals ranging from a tax credit to federal subsidies for child care based in schools and other community agencies.

Within the next 25 to 35 years, Mr. Zigler predicted, as the number of families with both parents working increases, citizens will support school-based child care through general tax revenues.

"Over the short haul," he said,4communities must charge fees "adjusted for income" and tap existing state and federal block-grant and remedial-education funds.

But he called for the development of a stable funding base for child-care programs that is not dependent on annual federal appropriations.

While the government should assume a greater responsibility in subsidizing day-care for low-income children, Mr. Zigler said, "I don't think it will take a federal bill" to promote the 21st-Century School concept.

"On anything that's important to families and children, states are moving much quicker than the federal government," he said. "If we had waited for the federal government to subsidize public education, we never would have had it."

'Raising the Future'

Those involved in school-based programs acknowledge that the funding problems are exacerbated by the countervailing pressure to raise the wages of child-care workers.

"If we raise the salaries of workers too high, we make care unaffordable," Mr. Henley said. "It's a national problem that we are unable to solve locally."

The Independence school district pays its child-care site coordinators $300 a month and an hourly wage, based on their credentials, for any additional duties. Child-care aides who are not certified teachers start at $3.35 an hour, but are eligible for medical benefits if they work full time. They also receive training to help upgrade their skills.

The Platte County school district pays its site coordinators for school-aged child care about $11 an hour and starts its child-care aides at $5 an hour.

Mr. Henley said Independence had been able to tap a "relatively large pool of people," including several college students and older women re-entering the work force, who were seeking part-time or temporary work.

"The equation of what parents can pay and the [adult-child] ratios required makes it very hard to pay decent salaries," noted Bill G. Ewing, administrator of child-development programs for the Pomona, Calif., school district.

Pomona's program, which is able to pay teachers with a "children's center permit" credential up to $32,000 annually, is in a unique situation, Mr. Ewing noted, because the state heavily subsidizes child care.

Some experts worry that school systems less able to pay competitive wages will experience the same high turnover rates that plague day-care centers nationwide.

While students and part-time workers may play a valuable role in the child-care arena, "I don't think we can build a large, stable public-school system on that," Ms. Mitchell said.

"Clearly, we are never going to be able to get good, qualified, competent people for our children if we are paying them $5 and $6 an hour," said Mr. Zigler. But he predicted that day-care salaries would improve and become unionized "once the system is in the public school where there is a record of decent pay."

Although the training opportunities and benefits offered in Independence provide some compensation for low salaries, said Christie E. Wolfe, a child-care aide at the Sycamore Hills Elementary School, "it would be nice to be appreciated" in the form of higher wages. "We do such important work--we are raising the future."

Vol. 08, Issue 30

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