School-Based Child Care Meets Myriad Needs

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Harrisburg, Pa.

Tasha Hoover had been over this in her child-care-theory class: Children need to understand the consequences of their actions.

So when the little boy sitting next to her crushed his plastic cup during a classroom activity, it was her chance to explain this important lesson. Sitting at round tables in child-size chairs, the preschoolers had been given cotton balls and plastic cups and were told to do anything they wished with the materials. Most stuffed as many cotton balls as they could into the cups, except for Ms. Hoover's young neighbor.

"I told him he wasn't going to get another cup," said the senior at Dauphin County Technical School here. "He looked at me and said, 'Well, I was done.'"

Ms. Hoover is enrolled in the vocational school's child-care program, a 3 1/2-year course of study that prepares students to work in child care or other careers in early-childhood education.

The school, which draws students from six school districts within Dauphin County, Pa., is unusual in that it houses two Head Start preschool classes for low-income children. It also offers child care for the teenage mothers who attend the school--which is not so unusual.

Nationwide, school-based child-care centers are increasing in number and are used to meet a variety of needs: They give teenage mothers an incentive to stay in school, and students interested in working with babies and young children get practical experience by changing diapers, resolving disputes over toys, and writing lesson plans.

And in some cases, the centers provide on-site child care for teachers and other school employees.

There are no solid figures on the number of school-based child-care programs, particularly because these centers serve a variety of different audiences and usually are financed through a complex mix of grants and government sources.

But in a 1988 survey on services for teenage parents, 80 percent of the 220 programs that responded operated child-care centers on school grounds. Fern Marx, a senior social scientist with the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, conducted that study and said she believes the number of such programs has grown dramatically in the nearly 10 years since then.

Settings Vary

Rebecca Bridges, the president of the National Association of Teachers of Family and Consumer Sciences, agreed. She said more and more vocational programs are operating such child-care programs in-house instead of dispatching high schoolers to nearby centers or elementary schools.

But Charlotte Mohlring, the vice president of the family and consumer sciences division of the American Vocational Association in Alexandria, Va., noted that these programs are less common in areas where they would create competition for for-profit centers.

School-based centers are more prevalent in "states that have taken strides to retain teen parents" in school, said Susan T. Batten, a senior program officer at the Center for Assessment and Policy Development, a nonprofit research group in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. These states include Massachusetts and Texas, as well as California, Florida, and Oregon, which actually pay for child-care services for the babies of adolescent parents.

In Florida, which requires parenting programs for teenagers with children, school districts gradually have transferred child-care services from alternative or vocational centers to regular high schools.

"Originally, many districts were resistant to being forced to serve teen parents and getting into the child-care business," said Max Schilling, the program specialist for teenage-parent programs with the Florida education department. "Most came to see that it's not that hard to do, and there are benefits to the child and the mother."

But as long as schools provide child care to teenage parents, there will be those who oppose these programs and say they condone teenage pregnancy.

Some Florida districts are still wrestling with that issue, Mr. Schilling said, but those that continue to hold out on offering services to teenage parents and their children will soon get a strong reminder in the form of a detailed manual on exactly what the state law requires.

The new federal welfare law, which requires teenage mothers to finish high school or lose benefits, could also motivate school districts across the country to begin offering these types of services, observers say.

Hands-On Training

For some schools, career education is the main objective for operating child-care facilities.

For 20 years, Parkview High School in Sterling, Va., has been running a three-day-a-week pre-school program, but it doesn't offer child care for teenage mothers. The center serves solely as a lab for those enrolled in a child-development course, in which students find out quickly whether they have the patience and energy needed to work with young children.

"I have some students who can't wait for this class to be over," said Robin Wortman, Parkview High's work- and family-studies educator.

The lessons have been well-taken for Ms. Hoover of Dauphin County Technical. Before studying child care, she thought she wanted to open her own center. But now, though the 12th grader says she still enjoys working with children, she has misgivings about all the other duties.

"I don't want to be responsible for all the budgets," she said.

Many students who take the child-care courses in high school continue to work in the child-care industry, and there is always a high demand for qualified workers. But because careers in child care and early education usually are low-wage jobs, teachers try to guide their students toward entrepreneurial opportunities and better-paying positions.

That was one reason why Pat DiBerardine, the director of the child-care program at Dauphin County Technical, pursued the partnership with Head Start--its staff members usually are better paid and better trained than typical preschool teachers. In fact, both of the Head Start lead teachers at Dauphin County Technical are former students of the school's child-care program.

Some states, including Pennsylvania, also recognize the experience and knowledge gained by the students in these vocational programs.

While day-care-center workers must be at least 18, 16-year-olds can be hired in Pennsylvania centers if they've had 400 hours of classroom instruction and spent 200 hours working in a center.

These programs also put students interested in child-care careers on a fast track toward becoming a child-development associate, meaning they meet the standards for caregivers set by the early-childhood profession.

'Working Miracles'

While Cache Creek High School in Yolo, Calif., also offers a child-development course, the school opened the In Our Hands center for infants and toddlers last fall specifically to lure teenage mothers back to school.

In a county with a teenage-pregnancy rate higher than the state average, the school serves returning dropouts, suspended students, and others having trouble in traditional high schools.

"We've had students return to the school that have been out for years, just because of the center," said Culien Ortiz, the lead teacher. "I really believe in this program. It's working miracles."

Shannon Knuckles, a senior at Dauphin County Technical and the mother of an 18-month-old boy, agrees that school child-care services are necessary.

"I wouldn't be able to graduate without it," said Ms. Knuckles, who was enrolled in the school's food-service program but now wants a career inspecting child-care facilities.

The Best Environment?

While such centers often serve multiple adult needs, they might not always be the best environments for the children cared for in them.

"There are issues with any program that has as its first goal serving the needs of someone other than the infant," said J. Ronald Lally, the director of the Center for Child and Family Studies at WestEd, a federally funded regional education lab in San Francisco. Mr. Lally, who studies the social and emotional development of infants, also runs training programs for child-care workers.

"There's too much handling," he said, referring to the number of different people caring for the children.

Most on-site child-care programs have stable directors and aides, and high school students can't be counted in the staff-to-child ratios. But the babies and toddlers are still routinely introduced to new students who are working in the centers to gain experience and earn credit.

High staff turnover is often cited as one factor that compromises quality in regular child-care programs.

Because the teenage mothers also drop in frequently to work at the centers or to feed or visit with their babies, "very often there are a number of separation events during the day" as mothers come and go, Mr. Lally said. "What they need to do is minimize the traffic."

To still provide the student workers with the hands-on training they need, Mr. Lally suggests assigning them to a single child.

Despite the disadvantages and the disruptions, the babies of teenage mothers are still more likely to get regular checkups and high-quality care if they attend a program where someone is monitoring their development and supporting the teenage parents, said Wendy Wolf, the president of the CAPD.

Center directors also say that because of the student workers, the young children often receive one-on-one attention--something that is rare in any child-care setting.

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