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.

Center directors who participate in TEACH are given a choice: They can either give their employees a bonus or a raise.

Those who stay in the program for two years see a 21 percent hike in wages, according to data collected by Day Care Services. After three years, it jumps to 37 percent.

Center directors who participate in TEACH are given a choice: They can either give their employees a bonus or a raise. If they choose the raise, they pay less toward the cost of tuition and books, and TEACH picks up the difference.

"We prefer the raise model because it addresses the real issue," Russell says. "It's permanent."

A small research study, involving 19 TEACH recipients who participated in the first year of the associate's program, concluded that after taking courses for a year, the teachers' interaction with the children in their care improved, when compared with those who didn't go to college.

One of the authors, Deborah J. Cassidy, an associate professor of human development and family studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, wrote: "The findings of this study lend further support to the premise that improving teacher educational qualifications is related to improved knowledge of developmentally appropriate practices and higher-quality classrooms."

What's more, the 1995 "Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes in Child Care Centers" study, conducted by researchers from four universities, said that the quality of a center increases when staff members get more education.

The experiences of TEACH recipients are personal victories. Women who haven't been to school in almost 20 years are tackling college math courses, writing terms papers, and sacrificing time with their own children to spend weeknights and Saturday mornings in class.

"My husband is very cooperative," says Ronda Campbell, a mother of two and the director of a center in Greensboro. She's spending a Wednesday evening in a course for directors at Guilford Technical Community College in Jamestown. The small-group assignment tonight is to craft a policy for admitting children with special needs into a center, under the American with Disabilities Act.

"I've taken as many as four classes at a time, but if it hadn't been for TEACH, I wouldn't have taken anything," says Campbell, who plans to graduate with an associate's degree this spring.

Because TEACH recipients are nontraditional students with many other responsibilities, Day Care Services also provides the students with a lot of counseling along the way.

Without those services, Tondra Hunter might not have reached her goal. The first of 22 grandchildren to attend college, the 31-year-old Hunter, who teaches a class of 3-year-olds at Kidworks in Raleigh, was one of the state's first TEACH recipients.

It's taken her six years to earn a "two year" degree, but that doesn't bother her. What matters, she says, is that the grandmother who raised her is proud.

"I've done things I never thought I would do. I know something about child care," Hunter says as her students nap on their cots. "Now, everyone is pushing me to get my B.A."

Centers are also using TEACH to recruit teachers who are interested in advancing their education and staying in the field.

"It brings a whole element of professionalism to the teachers and to the center," says Lynn Wray, the executive director of Kidworks, a work-site child-care program that serves the employees of Wake Medical Center.

Sitting in her office, next to an airy, uncluttered reception area, Wray could easily boast about the attractive and inviting classrooms or the spacious playground at Kidworks.

Instead, when prospective parents visit her center, housed in a one-story building around the corner from the hospital in Raleigh, she brags about how many of her teachers have college degrees.

"We get excited around here when someone graduates," she says. "We have parties and stuff."

TEACH has also stimulated improvements in North Carolina's community college system. As appealing as the idea of providing scholarships to child-care teachers was, educators and policymakers realized it wouldn't get very far if the courses weren't available.

When the scholarship program began, there were 36 associate's-degree programs for child-care providers in the state. Now there are 44, and more are being added all the time.

The colleges have been forced not only to add courses, but also to offer them when the providers, who are usually full-time working mothers, want them--in the evenings and on weekends. Improvements have also been made in what is known as articulation--allowing the courses that a student takes at the community college level to transfer to a university.

"At UNC-Greensboro, they walk in the door as juniors, and that's really unusual," says the child care workforce center's Vardell.

A new state requirement that all teachers have the credential by March is putting additional pressure on both the community colleges and the TEACH program. Colleges are hiring temporary instructors to keep up with the demand.

It's hard for people to argue with the concept behind TEACH: Higher education should result in higher pay.

"You can't ask someone to get that degree if it means that they are still going to make less than they would flipping burgers at McDonald's," says Sage Ruckterstuhl, the training director at the New York Child Care Coordinating Council, the advocacy group running TEACH in that state.

But there are aspects of the program that some center owners and directors here have found hard to swallow. Most don't complain about the 10 percent of tuition costs they must contribute. But some do grumble about the condition that they provide released time. TEACH requires centers to give most employees three to six hours of paid leave each week in order to go to school, study for tests, or just to have some free time.

"You can't ask someone to get that degree if it means that they are still going to make less than they would flipping burgers at McDonald's."

Sage Ruckterstuhl,
training director,
New York Child Care Coordinating Council

To hold up their end of the bargain, directors have to find substitutes, who are not in great supply, or cover the classrooms themselves.

For three years, TEACH was able to use AmeriCorps volunteers to work in the centers while the teachers were away, but the state opted against renewing the funding for that program.

Directors who are enrolled in TEACH are not required to receive any released time, forcing them to identify a staff member to put in charge and to break away whenever they can.

"There have been times when I just could not leave to go to class," says Anna Hartgrove, the director of Creative Day School in Greensboro and a student in the bachelor's-degree program at that city's UNC campus.

As she grabs another phone call or jumps up from her desk to talk to a parent about some racial comments heard from an after-schooler on the playground, it's clear Hartgrove doesn't have typical days. Hartgrove chuckles. "Sometimes I have to unstop the commodes."

She originally joined the TEACH program just to complete the credential, mainly because she wanted to know what her teachers were being taught. Now, four years later, she has inspired other members of her staff to get their degrees.

As difficult as it is for centers to provide released time, it's even more of a struggle for family child-care providers.

Margaret Shelton, who has been a provider in Chapel Hill for five years, even relied on the parents of her preschoolers for backup care while she was earning her associate's degree, which she finished in 1996.

"The last two years in school, I wasn't here for six hours a day. I was armed in class with a pager and a cell phone," Shelton says. A sleepy, blond toddler gets comfortable in her lap.

Outside of North Carolina, five states have instituted their own TEACH programs, with the blessing and guidance of Day Care Services.

Shelton's center, which she calls Blossoms Home Daycare, occupies four rooms on the back of her small house. The rooms are well-equipped with books, games, and lots of "play" food for the pretend kitchen.

On one of the walls is a framed picture of her, and several other North Carolina providers, sitting around a table with Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. and Vice President Al Gore. Shelton is one of several providers who have had the opportunity to tell political leaders how they think TEACH is improving the quality of child care.

With another TEACH scholarship, Shelton plans to start on her bachelor's degree next fall. She's not sure how she'll find substitutes while she's in school and making the hour's commute to UNC-Greensboro.

"You feel like you would if you were leaving your own children."

Center teachers, too, sometimes feel guilty for taking off early and sense resentment from co-workers.

"They don't begrudge you the education, but they sort of don't think it's fair," says Ronda Campbell, the Greensboro director working on her degree.

Some supervisors are also reluctant about their employees' getting a higher education, fearing that once these teachers are trained, they'll eventually leave for the public schools.

"That's likely to be true, but at least you've gotten a much better trained person for the four or five years that you have them," Vardell says. "We have to continue to narrow the [salary] gap between child care and the public schools."

Outside of North Carolina, five states have instituted their own TEACH programs, with the blessing and guidance of Day Care Services. Two others are in the process of getting it off the ground.

TEACH has a sophisticated database to keep track of all the players involved--the centers, the students, and the colleges. And that's usually the first thing out-of-state visitors want to get their hands on.

But Day Care Service's Russell insists that they begin running the program in a low-tech way and with more face-to-face interaction with the providers.

"We don't want their time spent on managing the program," she says.

States have to agree to operate the program in essentially the same way North Carolina does. "We felt like if other states really wanted to replicate it, we wanted it to be done with some integrity," Russell says.

Still, those states have had to implement the program in a different political climate, with different higher education systems and with providers who have varying educational needs.

For example, the Georgia Association on Young Children, which has been running TEACH in that state for 3 « years, has had trouble building political support for the program. The state already spends millions of lottery dollars on its popular college-scholarship program called HOPE, which stands for Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally.

When possible, child-care providers go to school on a HOPE scholarship and then get "wraparound benefits," such as the bonus and reimbursements for books, from the TEACH program, says Tracey Bankhead, the project director for TEACH in Georgia.

Another obstacle there is the limited availability of child-care-degree programs. Only 17 of the 33 vocational-technical schools in the state offer them.

Just 60 providers in Georgia have benefited from TEACH since it began. The association is using federal child-care block grant dollars exclusively.

"Why can't lottery dollars support this program? There are 20,000 teachers in Georgia we could serve," Bankhead argues.

Even though Georgia's TEACH program hasn't reached many providers, the outcomes--such as higher wages and lower turnover--are the same, she adds. "Even if it's small, it absolutely works."

In four states--Florida, Illinois, New York, and Colorado--private funds from the American Business Collaboration for Quality Dependent Care, a partnership of 22 large companies, including Citibank, the American Express Co., and Johnson & Johnson--are also being used to support TEACH. Scholarship recipients are recruited from centers that serve a heavy concentration of parents who work for those 22 corporations.

But Ruckterstuhl from New York says she doesn't want to ask foundations to underwrite the program on a long-term basis.

About 30 participants have been through the program so far, and Ruckterstuhl would like it to grow as large as North Carolina's. Her organization is now seeking money from the state, but so far the idea has not been warmly received by state leaders.

"We hear that there is some discomfort about having the compensation piece tied to something that is state-funded," she says. "They don't want to dictate to private businesses how to pay their staff."

Another delicate issue, now facing child-care advocates in California, is what to do for providers who already have college-level training. One-third of the center-based teachers in that state have a bachelor's degree, says Marcy Whitebook, the executive director of the Center for the Child Care Workforce and a resident of Oakland, Calif.

"What you need depends on the workforce in your state," she says.

That is the issue troubling her about implementing a nationwide TEACH-style program. "If you design this, you have got to have something for people who already have their degree. I think TEACH is a really creative, good initiative, but I don't think it's the solution to the staffing crisis."

Russell agrees. The missing piece, she says, is North Carolina's WAGES salary-supplement program, which is paid for with money from another North Carolina program, Smart Start.

"When you put WAGES and TEACH together, you've got the answer," she says.

"I think TEACH is a really creative, good initiative, but I don't think it's the solution to the staffing crisis."

Marcy Whitebook,
executive director,
Center for the Child Care Workforce

Gov. Hunt's Smart Start initiative is another nationally recognized effort that supports improvements in child care and other programs for young children at the county level. President Clinton has also proposed a plan similar to Smart Start, which he's calling an Early Learning Fund. With $3 billion over five years, the fund would be used to help centers earn accreditation, provide teachers with basic training, and reduce staff-to-child ratios.

While TEACH focuses on getting teachers educated, WAGES--or Workers are Gaining Education and Salary--rewards those who are already trained with annual salary supplements. The more training they get, the higher the supplement. A teacher with a bachelor's degree can get an extra $2,000 a year.

So far, only a handful of North Carolina's 100 counties use some of their Smart Start money for WAGES. But more have indicated, in their written plans for the next two years, that they want to participate, says Karen Ponder, the program director at the North Carolina Partnership for Children in Raleigh, the nonprofit organization that runs Smart Start.

Center directors like WAGES because the money doesn't come out of their own budgets, meaning they don't have to raise fees for parents.

But apparently that message hasn't reached the president's advisers in Washington yet.

"It just broke my heart when I read the list of Smart Start-like activities and salary supplements weren't there," Russell says.

After 18 years in child care, Tondra Hunter now makes $9.80 an hour teaching in Raleigh. While that's far better than some center teachers make, it's still meager enough to make her look for part-time work as well. For two months, she left her classroom at Kidworks at 2 p.m. and went straight to a large family child-care center to work until 6 p.m. But the strain became too much.

Even so, Hunter and other TEACH recipients don't plan to leave the early-childhood field. In fact, many of them now believe so strongly in the need for education that they want to be involved in some aspect of training themselves.

"All I had to do to get my license was have a fire extinguisher, plugs in my outlets, and a trash can with a lid," says Shelton, the family child-care provider in Chapel Hill. "I don't think people should have to do so little to open up their home to children."

Vol. 17, Issue 22, Page 32-35

Published in Print: February 11, 1998, as Learning To Care
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