Better teachers, more space, easier access for parents

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Jerome Stermer

Jerome Stermer

Advocates of universal access to preschool are not looking to simply create more programs. Rather, they want to improve the quality of early childhood programs by hiring better teachers, finding enough suitable space and making it easier for parents to use them.

This message repeatedly came through in Catalyst interviews with more than 40 early childhood educators, researchers and leaders from Chicago and across the state.

Associate Editor Debra Williams takes a closer look at the three priorities mentioned most often.

Quality teachers

In Illinois, the preschool playing field is decidedly uneven in both teacher training and pay.

“You can have gorgeous facilities, but if teachers are not trained and compensated, you don’t have good programs,” says Paula Jorde Bloom, director of an early childhood teacher training program at National-Louis University.

Teachers in pre-kindergarten programs funded by the state, as well as all preschool teachers in the public schools, are required to have a bachelor’s degree and a Type 04 early childhood teaching certificate. To earn the certificate, teachers must pass a basic skills test, clock 100 hours of observation in an early childhood classroom and complete a supervised student teaching stint.

By contrast, Head Start teachers need only two years of college, including six hours of early childhood coursework, although a new federal mandate stipulates that 50 percent must have at least an associate’s degrees by September 2003.

Credentials for teachers in state-subsidized child care programs are even less demanding. They need only one year of child development experience and 30 college credit hours, including six hours in child development.

According to educators, early childhood teachers should know how to teach all preschoolers. That means being able to teach children who are just beginning to read alongside those who are just making the connection between sounds and letters in the same classroom, with the same activity.

“A good teacher teaches children about their own feelings, socializing, math and reading, all at the same time to children on different levels,” says Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. “We see teachers who would like to do this, but don’t know how because they don’t have the training.”

Gillian McNamee, director of undergraduate teacher education at the Erikson Institute, says that the state’s certification program teaches what preschool teachers need to know. “Licensed teachers learn methods of dealing with a variety of children, even those with special needs,” she says. “Certification also requires a general education background, a good strong background in liberal arts, math [and] science.”

Barnett agrees that a general education background is important. “We’ve seen teachers say cabbage grows on trees.”

Advocates propose that a statewide universal preschool program require that all teachers have Type 04 certification and a bachelor’s degree.

Besides aligning credentials, supporters of universal preschool want to eliminate disparities in teacher pay. Ideally, child care center teachers would have a bachelor’s degree and the aides would have an associate’s degree, says Judith Walker-Kendrick of the Chicago Coalition of Site Administered Child Care Programs. “But the pay is so low, you can’t demand higher qualifications.”

As it stands now, pay disparity among early childhood teachers is broad. According to a report on Illinois’ early childhood workforce, teachers in state pre-kindergartens and CPS child-parent centers earn at least $26 an hour. At the other end of the scale are Head Start teachers outside CPS, who make about $12.30 an hour, and child care workers at the state’s subsidized programs who are paid as little as $8.21 an hour.

Low pay and uneven salary scales also generate a lot of turnover, which is bad for kids. Those who upgrade their credentials, often jump ship for a higher salary.

For instance, if a terrific state-subsidized child care teacher has an associate’s degree, then struggles to earn a bachelor’s, she is likely to move on to a public school for better pay, Bloom says.

Under the proposed universal preschool plan, the state would allow educators to get time to complete the necessary course work and it would provide financial incentives, such as grants and scholarships, to help them through school. With additional training, salaries would increase and be commensurate with those of the local school district. Appropriations for salaries would be built into the preschool plan budget. Two programs funded by the state currently provide such incentives:

Great START, which stands for Strategy to Attract and Retain Teachers, provides a wage supplement to licensed child care providers who attain additional education and stay in their jobs. Current funding for the program is $2.4 million a year.

TEACH, which stands for Teacher Education and Compensation Helps, pays up to 80 percent of tuition and books towards an associate’s degree with child development credentials for child care and Head Start teachers. The current budget is $3 million.

Universal preschool advocates want to extend the benefits of TEACH to all early childhood professionals, including teachers seeking master’s degrees and child care center directors pursuing leadership and management credentials.

“Many of these day care provider directors are operating programs as complex as a principal at a Chicago public school,” Bloom says, but a director doesn’t have to have a bachelor’s degree.

Advocates are encouraging directors to participate in the Illinois Director Credential Program, a voluntary program for child care center directors. So far, 70 of the state’s 3,800 child care center directors have finished the program, which is administered by the Illinois Network of Child Care Resources and Referral Agencies. Another 130 are in the pipeline.

Still, part of the challenge is upgrading the status of teaching over all.

“We need to get rid of the [financial] disincentive to stay in the public sector,” says Bloom. “The attraction of higher salaries in other fields takes away the cream of the crop for teaching.”

“There is a lot of room for good public relations in this area,” says Erikson’s McNamee. “This is a marketing challenge. Large school systems need to make teaching an honorable profession.”

Then, there is also the matter of retention.

A great number of new teachers leave after the first two years because conditions are dreadful and they don’t get support from school administrators, says Anne Mitchell, president of Early Childhood Policy Research in Washington, D.C. “We can do a fair amount of closing the gap by being nicer to teachers.”

Sokoni Karanja, president of Centers for New Horizons, suggests using money and accolades to attract and retain good preschool teachers. The mayor could recognize a “preschool teacher of the month,” he says. “We need to create excitement about it.”

Suitable facilities

For now, the availability of space for preschool programs around the state is uneven.

“In Chicago, some areas are gentrifying and there is space, but no kids.” says Margie Wallen, a universal preschool policy consultant to the state. “Other communities are bulging with kids and have no space.”

While advocates eventually aim to tackle this problem, the task force plans are focusing on enhancing existing programs for now.

Lucinda Lee Katz, former director of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, is pulling together an early childhood plan for Mayor Daley. One of her assignments is to look at areas in the city, community by community, for capacity.

“One of the things the mayor wants to do is to provide families with children from zero to 5 with early childhood resources,” says Katz. “We are looking at what resources are available in the city and what needs to be realigned to provide better service.”

“Space is certainly a challenge we face in Rogers Park,” says Kate Sachnoff, who runs a network for early child care providers in Edgewater and Rogers Park. “There is just not enough. And the cost of rehabbing buildings to fit the needs of little kids is expensive.”

Indeed, creating space is not cheap. Unlike their older counterparts, young children need more physical space to move around, take naps and eat. Bathrooms should be either in the classroom or close by.

The cost to build 10 new preschool classrooms to serve 200 children is roughly $4.6 million, about $23,000 a child. Retrofitting an old building is about the same, says Joe Neri from the Illinois Facilities Fund.

The Chicago Public Schools is scouting for space in the backyards of other city departments. “We’ve been in conversation with the park district about this,” says CEO Arne Duncan. “Parks are empty during the morning. This fall, we may have pre-k programs in park facilities. We are trying to stretch our resources.”

However, advocates of community-based programs worry that an expansion of CPS programs could squeeze them out of business. They caution that an expansion of building capacity must include the community child care programs.

“Creating space is not about more programs in schools,” says Joan Lomardi, an early education policy specialist in Washington, D.C. “It is about partnerships. In New York and New Jersey, the school districts partner with community-based organizations.”

Under any space expansion, Duncan says CPS has no intentions of excluding community-based organizations. Indeed, he says CPS has been meeting with such groups to find ways to collaborate. Currently, CPS subcontracts with community child care centers to provide half-day preschools for 4,300 children. The arrangement costs the district $11 million.

Seamless programs

Advocates want to streamline preschool program guidelines to make them easier for parents to use. Now, some requirements make it difficult for families to qualify or remain eligible when family circumstances improve. Advocates also believe parents need access to full-day programs if they need them.

Combining existing funding streams for Head Start, state-subsidized child care and state pre-kindergarten would be a start. This would align family eligibility requirements and pave the way for an extended day.

“We want families to be able to walk off the street and be able to put their child in a good, quality early childhood education program and not have to worry about if they qualify,” says Harriet Meyer, president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund. “But there are plenty of barriers.”

In fact, eligibility requirements are markedly different for Illinois’ three largest early childhood programs—state pre-kindergarten, Head Start and subsidized child care.

To qualify for state pre-kindergarten, children are screened for developmental delays and must be considered at risk of academic failure. Head Start mandates that families earn below federal poverty income levels, which range from annual earnings of $12,120 to $18,400 a year, depending on family size. Both programs are free.

Subsidized child care is targeted for low-income parents who are working, in school or in a training program. The state pays a portion of the expense and parents make a co-payment based on income, family size and the number of children in child care. To be considered eligible, families can earn no more than 50 percent of the state median income based on 1997 data.

According to the Day Care Action Council of Illinois, this means a family of three can earn no more than $24,243 to qualify. (See chart, p. 17) And families that lose eligibility can go from paying a small portion of their income to devoting more than half of it to non-subsidized child care.

“If families get even the tiniest raise, they lose eligibility,” says Maria Whelan, executive director of the Day Care Action Council of Illinois. “And their salaries are reassessed every six months.”(Advocates propose updating the guidelines to 2003 income figures. That way, a family of three could make up to $31,787 and remain eligible.)Blended funding across programs would make it easier for families to qualify and would provide families with greater choices, like full-day, full-year programs.

“Families’ needs are closely aligned with children’s needs,” says Tom Layman, who heads the Chicago Metropolitan Association for the Education of Young Children. “Many families are working, so they shuffle kids to child care, to an educational setting and then back to child care. Blending funding eliminates this.”

Some Chicago child care centers and public school programs are blending child care funds with Head Start or state pre-kindergarten money. In some cases, they’re combining all three. But the practice is a feat for administrators to pull off, and new federal guidelines for Head Start threaten to eliminate blending entirely.

Structural barriers are unnecessary obstacles for early childhood programs, Whelan says. “I wish federal and state policies were developed with families and children in mind first, instead of being driven by the need to pigeonhole funding streams.”