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Children's Voice Article, January 2001

Profiles in Child Care

CWLA members are leading the way in innovations.

By Kelley Blassingame

Every day, 13 million preschoolers-including 6 million infants and toddlers-are in child care, according to the Children's Defense Fund. This accounts for three out of every five young children; millions more school-age children are enrolled in afterschool programs. Nearly 1.3 million workers cared for children in either child day care centers or private homes in 1998, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the demand for preschool teachers and child care workers will increase faster than the average for all occupations through 2008. Not only that, but BLS predicts the number of children enrolled in full- or part-time care is likely to continue increasing. Add to that the sometimes tenuous funding and high employee turnover common in the child care field, and the result is a mounting challenge to child care professionals: providing high-quality care to children and competitive wages and benefits to workers. Many CWLA member agencies nationwide have risen to the challenge and are leading high-quality, educational day care programs. The five profiled here-one from each of CWLA's five regions-exemplify how communities can work together to best meet the needs of the children and families they serve.

24-7

From coin laundries to fitness centers, grocery stores to auto mechanics, businesses are adjusting their hours of operation to accommodate customers' schedules, many offering 24-hour services. Children's Home-Chambliss Shelter (CHCS), Chattanooga, Tennessee, was way ahead of this trend-the agency began offering 24-hour child care in 1969.

Since then, enrollment has grown from 50 children to more than 300, ages 6 weeks to 12 years. The staff of 57 full-time and 30 part-time workers keep the center running like a well-oiled machine, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, including holidays. "We see ourselves as one of the major cogs that keeps the community working and people productive," says Phil Acord, CHCS's director for nearly 30 years.

"Children start coming in as early as 5:00 a.m.," Acord says. "[Most] get here between 7:00 and 9:00 a.m. and…leave between 7:00 and 8:00 p.m." The center has more than 10 rooms, including six nurseries, and provides three meals and two snacks a day. The day is structured with educational activities for preschool children and a computer lab and homework time for school-age children to work on class projects. Areas for art, dress-up, blocks, and other activities mean there's plenty of time for fun, too.

As the day winds down, eight or nine children arrive and settle in at CHCS for the night. Costs prevent the center from providing nighttime infant care. Acord admits night hours are difficult for everyone involved-parents, children, and staff-but he is dedicated to making it as easy as possible, whether it's reading stories to anxious children at night or rewarding the night staff, who work a 13-hour shift, with some much-deserved time off.

As much as possible, Acord encourages parents to get more traditional work schedules, but he realizes it's not an easy task. "Working late-night shifts is a terrible schedule, but if you're a single parent, you do whatever you need to," he says. "We're here to help any way we can."

One way is by providing vans to transport children to the center from school, home, or afterschool activities. The center also gives parents financial assistance by basing what they pay on each family's income and the number of children in care. Public and private funding streams cover remaining costs.

This system is especially beneficial to families transitioning from welfare to work and working families who can't afford the full cost of child care but don't qualify for public subsidies. It's also a great benefit to single parents, which Acord says comprise about 70% of the community's population. "Tennessee is actually the third or fourth state for the number of single-parent families. It's one of the reasons our program is so popular," he says.

CHCS has a waiting list of nearly 200 families, most looking for infant care. To help these families find care as quickly as possible, CHCS recently began a voluntary registration program to get private home child care providers licensed by the state. An estimated 300 homes have been registered through the program, enabling CHCS to refer families on its waiting list to these home providers.

CHCS also manages four other child day care programs in collaboration with the United Way. Its main center, however, is the only one that offers 24-hour care. "We have a unique, nontraditional program that gives a lot of parents the flexibility they need to work and still have care for their children," Acord says. "We just try as hard as we can to serve all of the needs of the community as far as caring for our children."

Corporate Connections

When the Children's Home Society of Minnesota (CHSM) was founded in Minneapolis in 1889, its primary services dealt with adoption. More than a century later, CHSM has evolved to include additional services that help the agency better meet the needs of its changing community. One of its newest additions: corporate child day care centers housed in their respective company headquarters.

CHSM opened its first corporate child care center in 1989; it's still housed in the headquarters of The St. Paul, an insurance company. The agency operates two more corporate centers in the Twin Cities area (at Carlson Companies, corporate parent of Radisson Hotels and T.G.I. Friday's, and at General Mills) and another at the Minot, North Dakota, offices of financial services company Reliastar. Together all four serve more than 300 children ages 6 weeks to 5 years. "We began [the corporate center program] because we saw a real need for quality child care in the corporate workplace," says CHSM Child Care Director Jackie Olafson. "We believe all children deserve the benefit of quality care regardless of the family working situation."

When a company seeks to open a child care center, CHSM establishes a formal contract outlining responsibilities for the costs of the center's design or renovation and operational costs once the center is opened. CHSM advises the corporation on the best way to equip the space to meet the health, safety, and developmental needs of the children.

Although the children's needs are the main priority in creating a corporate child care center, Olafson points out the needs and expectations of the company must be addressed as well. "One of the challenges of starting corporate child care programs is understanding the company's workforce culture, because it will inevitably flow into the [child care] center," she says. "If you don't know about it beforehand, it can cause problems with the center's mission and the company's mission being able to mesh. The center has to maintain its identity and still meet the company's needs, and that's difficult to do."

CHSM also works to meet the financial needs of employees who enroll their children in the corporate centers. Most parents pay through payroll deduction or pay in full, but the agency maintains a sliding-scale fee for lower-income parents who may not qualify for subsidized care. Funding from the United Way and other state and local sources helps CHSM operate a scholarship fund that helps 30-65 families each year afford their children's care.

CHSM operates 13 other child day care centers, including four housed in area high schools, one in an urban housing complex, an afterschool program, and a summer youth program. All are nationally accredited; combined, 300 staff members serve an estimated 2,000 children annually.

Olafson says one of CHSM's philosophies is that quality staff provide quality care. Center directors have 10-30 years of experience in child day care, and most teachers have four-year degrees in early childhood education or a related field. All child care workers attend free training sessions to help them meet the state's required 40 training hours per year. Centers close for the two-day trainings, and employees are paid for the training days.

Community Partnership

Jim Bell is a very busy man. As director of the Springfield Day Nursery (SDN), Springfield, Massachusetts, he oversees a $9.5 million budget, a 175-person staff, and the agency's 10 child day care centers in the city, including five afterschool, toddler, and preschool programs and child care collaboratives with Head Start, the YWCA, and the city's court system.

As if that weren't enough, Bell cochairs a communitywide child care partnership that links 25 agencies throughout the area to provide quality care to the city's diverse population.

The community partnership began five years ago when the state appointed a commission to explore ways to improve early childhood education. The commission recommended that local child care agencies and public schools work collectively to improve programs. The state legislature allocated funds to the Department of Education to award start-up grants for communities to form partnerships. Led by Bell, other child care professionals, and the school superintendent, and with the support of the mayor's office, Springfield received a community partnership grant and got to work.

Starting with 10 agencies, the partnership has expanded to 25 that support Springfield's public and private child care providers. The partnership has provided area child care centers with services and supplies such as books and other educational materials, increased training opportunities for staff, support from health teams to provide hearing and vision screenings, and mental health consultants to identify children with special needs. But Bell and other partner agencies don't want to stop there. "We're looking to expand partnerships to include museums and libraries and health care workers who can give immunizations," he says.

Coordinating so many people is difficult. "Communication is critical to understanding everyone's roles and responsibilities," Bell notes. "Exchanging views and ideas is the main idea behind getting organizations to reach out and form nontraditional partnerships."

But the hardest part of running the partnership is its sometimes unknown future. The grant is funded annually and can be cut or eliminated at any time. "That's tough-working so hard year after year but still never knowing if the funding will be there the next," he says. "But so far the support has always been there."

Bell doesn't let his commitment to the partnership program overshadow the importance of continuing to provide quality care at SDN's day care centers. All 10 centers are nationally accredited and together serve 1,000 children daily, ages 6 weeks to 11 years. To maintain the high level of care, Bell says on-going staff training and development is essential. SDN holds six staff training sessions yearly, and staff also attend community workshops, conferences, and seminars. Nearly all of SDN's staff have two- or four-year degrees, and the agency offers tuition assistance for employees seeking to continue their education.

Afterschool Miracles

After nearly 30 years of operation, Miracle Makers, Brooklyn, New York, has had only one child be unsuccessful in its afterschool program-from the 450 the program serves each year-according to agency director Willie Wren. With results like that, Miracle Makers lives up to its name.

The agency operates 10 full-service child day care centers providing full-day preschool and afterschool care for children ages 6 to 13. Most children in the afterschool program arrive around 3:00 p.m. and begin their homework with the help of Miracle Makers' staff, who provide tutoring and other assistance. Most children have access to computers for class projects, and staff plan other educational activities to help supplement children's classroom learning. Fun activities are scheduled, too, to keep the program from being too focused on academics. Children and staff enjoy arts and crafts, music lessons, and cooking activities. "The kids look forward to coming here in the afternoon," Wren says, "because they know they'll have fun and at the same time have the structure they need."

Preserving Miracle Makers' structured, secure environment is the agency's staff, most of whom have taught in the program since its inception. Wren thinks staff continuity is a major contributor to the program's success, citing the high staff turnover that many centers struggle with. "Ours is a setting where they know all their teachers and all the kids, mostly because they were all enrolled in the preschool program together, too."

The continuity of teachers also helps parent-teacher relationships, Wren says. "Parents feel more comfortable discussing their child's progress with a teacher who's had a long-term relationship with the child." Teachers send home regular progress reports and hold monthly parent advisory meetings to discuss problems and ways to support the children. Word of parents' satisfaction with the program has obviously spread, as Miracle Makers has 100 families on a waiting list for the preschool program and 30 waiting to enroll in the afterschool program.

Wren hopes to build on the afterschool program's success by expanding it to the public school system. Miracle Makers recently applied for a $25 million grant from the After School Corporation. If awarded the grant, Wren plans to open sites for the agency's programs in public schools and obtain more materials and technology for its current sites.

"Gaining access to the public schools would be a great advancement because we would then have access to gyms and other school facilities," Wren says. "Plus it would help reach kids who right now aren't getting any afterschool services."

In addition to its afterschool program, the agency also operates a dropout prevention program called Expanding Horizons that serves more than 100 children, ages 8 to 19, who are at risk of dropping out of school, have already dropped out, or have been expelled from school for behavioral or emotional problems. Staff work with children and their families to resolve these issues and also provide academic tutoring to bring the students back up to grade level so they may reenter school. Wren says Expanding Horizons has done well in its seven years-all the youth enrolled in the program have returned to school; many went on to college.

Early Interventions

Seeing an increasing need for children's mental health services for child care providers, the Children's Council of San Francisco (CCSF) took the lead in the Bay Area to establish a mental health unit. The unit's three mental health professionals are available to child care providers to conduct on-site visits and to work with children individually who have been victims of physical or sexual abuse or who have experienced trauma at home, such as having an incarcerated parent or witnessing domestic violence.

The mental health consultants can conduct classroom visits and collaborate with teachers to diagnose problem behaviors, developmental problems, or learning disabilities.

"The idea is to support children, parents, and teachers who are viewed as being at risk," says Farris Page, director of CCSF's mental health unit. "The child himself may not be at risk, but a situation at home or school could lead to problems. Our goal is to offset any problems that could escalate if they aren't dealt with."

CCSF operates a referral line specifically for mental health, and Page says most children and families are referred by child care providers or teachers. "Every now and then a parent will call, but usually when there's a problem it arises in the care-giving environment." Accepting services is voluntary, and parents must give written consent.

The consultants serve about 450 children a year through play therapy, individual therapy, classroom observation, and meetings with teachers and parents. Even though the program is only in its second year, Page is planning to expand the unit and hire more consultants. The program has been so successful CCSF recently expanded its efforts, opening a therapeutic nursery-staffed by three teachers with clinical development training, and an intern-that cares for about eight children.

Page attributes part of the unit's success to being able to work with parents and teachers to detect a child's problems before they become too severe. "Early intervention is key," she says. "It makes the difference between being able to resolve the issue before they enter school and some kids who would go without support and enter school emotionally disturbed and become boxed in as problem children."

Success doesn't come without some obstacles. Lack of funding prevents expanding the mental health unit for now, and Page says maintaining current funding streams is also difficult. In addition to local funding, CCSF receives support from the California Health and Human Service Agency under Proposition 10-a law that allocates tax dollars for children's programs. But the agency still relies on private donations and support from local foundations to pay for services and staff salaries.

Nonetheless, Page is pleased with the strides the mental health unit has made thus far. "The organization's reputation and the quality of our staff help make us a success," she says. Most CCSF staff, not just the mental health unit, have master's degrees or better in early childhood education, child development, child and family therapy, or related fields. "The staff is able to quickly gain the trust of teachers in the nursery environment because they usually have similar training. And with that validation and trust, [mental health staff] can make recommendations that teachers and parents will accept."

Kelley M. Blassingame is a CWLA associate editor and a contributing editor to Children's Voice.

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