Three centers show challenges, rewards of ‘blending’

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Chinese American Service League

photo by John Booz

Chinese American Service League

Gads Hill is the very picture of a modern early childhood facility. Located in North Lawndale, the center has six preschool classrooms, each with special reading lofts and an abundance of materials.

Teachers wear bright blue polo shirts emblazoned with the Gads Hill name. Activities, meals and other services start at 6 a.m. and run till 6 p.m., five days a week, 12 months a year.

In the last 18 months, site Director Burma Weekley has overseen a surge in enrollment, with the number of pre-schoolers soaring from around 50 to 110.

But there’s one thing Gads Hill lacks: teachers with Type 04 certificates for its six new state pre-kindergarten classrooms. Instead, the children in those classrooms are being taught by a Head Start teacher and an aide—none of them with all of the skills, knowledge and expectations that would come with a Type 04 certificate, says Wilhelmina Smiley-Foster, education coordinator for the site.

“The Type 04 teacher is supposed to be the lead teacher that carries on the curriculum, develops the lesson plans, and makes sure everything is being carried out,” says Smiley-Foster, who is doing her best to help out in the meantime.

Weekley has posted notices, gone to conferences and sought out recruits through a well-established network of contacts that generated almost half of her current teaching staff. But so far, she’s had little luck, and like others in the field, says low pay is largely to blame. Only a newly minted Type 04 teacher, or one with a working spouse, is likely to accept the $35,000 starting salary she can currently offer, Weekley says.

She’s hoping to be able to re-budget at some point during the year, in order to offer a higher starting salary.

In the meantime, Gads Hill is trying to grow its own certified staff. One example is Patrice Crayton, who is scheduled to get her bachelor’s degree from Kendall College and take the Type 04 exam in June.

Crayton, who worked at an Ounce of Prevention site on the South Side for six years, says she likes the diverse community at Gads Hill, which includes a mix of Latino and African-American children, and doesn’t plan to leave any time soon. But she understands the temptation. “There’s a lot of centers, and that makes it hard,” she says. “People have choices.”

Still, the state pre-k program has brought two distinct advantages. One is professional development. The staff of 12 teachers and aides has been participating in monthly sessions provided by CPS, and Weekley points out that “they’re getting so much that they did not get before” state pre-k was launched.

Another plus is a stronger connection to CPS. That’s sparked Weekley to plan “more follow-up with the children” who typically enroll in Dett, Plamondon and Chalmers schools.

CPS officials who oversee the program haven’t yet expressed concern about the lack of certified early childhood teachers, Weekley says. But Gads Hill could eventually lose state pre-k slots if it can’t find at least one or two teachers to rotate among the classroom. “I haven’t heard that it’s a worry,” says Weekley, “but it’s in the contract.”

She’s optimistic about finding the right teachers and getting them in place. “I have four resumes right here,” she says, tapping a folder she received just that morning. “And they all have Type 04 certification.”

Head Start brings raises, more work to Chinatown preschool

The Chinese American Service League has lots of experience with early childhood education—it has run a state pre-kindergarten program for a decade and a state-subsidized child care center even longer. The child care center boasts accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

And all of its lead classroom teachers have master’s degrees.

Yet, the League, in Chinatown, hesitated when the Chicago Department of Human Services offered it a Head Start program.

“We knew that [adding Head Start] would be an incredible amount of work, and that their system is a lot more complicated,” says child education Director Brenda Arksey.

However, the lure of additional staff, equipment and supplies overcame the League’s reluctance. Now their social worker works full time, and they have a new part-time nurse on site as well. “We look at the kids more closely,” says Linda Li, one of the lead teachers.

The addition of Head Start also paved the way for salary increases. Under Head Start guidelines, teachers with an associate’s degree should make about $23,000 a year. Those in the League’s program were starting at only $18,000. Lead teachers were starting at a base of $26,000.

“I basically said, ‘If we’re going to take this Head Start money, we’re going to have to raise the salaries of our teaching staff,'” recalls Arksey.

Giving raises to the teachers was controversial within the League, especially since they wouldn’t be entirely covered by Head Start funding. To help justify them, Arksey and site Coordinator Wei Lian Xin came up with lists of additional responsibilities for each teacher.

In the end, all of the classroom teachers got a raise of some kind, with lead teachers starting in the “low 30’s,” according to Arksey.

Li, who has a master’s in early childhood education and Type 04 certification, could earn much more at a neighborhood elementary school but prefers her current work. “At the center, I have a little bit more time with my children to sit down one on one,” she says. “I wanted to work with a variety of [ethnic groups]. Plus, this is in the community I grew up in.”

Meredith Chambers, a nine-year League veteran who has a master’s degree in language and literacy, says recent salary increases will help the center grow. “I’ve had a few offers,” she says, adding that she has no desire to leave the center.

The raises also encouraged more of the center’s assistant teachers to go back to school, says Chambers. “My two assistants are in school,” she says. “We all are doing things that will increase us educationally.”

As anticipated, Head Start has also increased the workload, requiring an expanded parental involvement program, additions to the curriculum, home visits and an additional set of assessments for each child.

“There is a lot of bureaucratic red tape that takes us away from the classroom,” says Li, who spends one day a week doing nothing but paperwork. Each of her two lead teacher colleagues spends a half day a week.

“We had to do two different assessments,” says Chambers. “We wish that the powers that be could get it together.”

Flexible hours, other perks help Erie House ‘grow’ teachers

With a mix of generous benefits, a flexible teaching environment and other perks, Erie House in West Town is trying to stem the loss of certified preschool teachers and attract still more.

Over the last year and a half, Erie House lost two certified teachers, including one who took a job in a suburban school district.

Newspaper ads last summer generated roughly a dozen responses, from which the center found two certified teachers, according to Pam Costakis, director of Erie House’s state pre-k program. The most recent round of midyear ads has generated only five responses, however. “This time of year, it’s much harder,” she says.

As a result, the center currently has only two classroom teachers with Type 04 certificates for six state pre-k classrooms. Ideally, each of those six classrooms should have a Type 04 teacher.

Child care Director Sandy Schaefer believes stereotypes about day care programs are a turn-off to prospective applicants, who she says “hear ‘daycare’ and they think of babysitting. This leads to lots of problems with recruiting.”

One way Erie is combating the problem is through “home-growing” certified teachers from among existing staff. Thanks to a variety of tuition reimbursement funds, teachers “don’t really have to spend money out of their own pockets” to take classes, says Costakis. Erie allows some teachers to leave early for classes, and offers part-time or flexible hours to staff who are working to further their education. The center has two full-time and one part-time substitute to cover for teachers during these times, as well as during vacation.

With lots of help from the center, one such homegrown teacher earned her Type 04 but then decided not to return from maternity leave.

Currently, four lead teachers, three of whom already hold bachelor’s degrees, are working toward their Type 04 certificates. One of them is Salvador Lopez, who has been taking courses at Northeastern for five years. Lopez is upbeat despite the challenges of juggling work and school, and says the coursework is “absolutely” helping him become a better teacher. “I feel more experienced, I feel very sure about what I’m doing in the classroom, and I’m very prepared to help my coworkers.”

Still, Schaefer believes Erie House offers other advantages that can be powerful lures to help reel in new staff. There’s a strong parent involvement program, in which parents regularly volunteer and meet at the school to help with projects. Collaborative work among teachers is encouraged, including working on assessments, meeting with parents and leading classroom activities.

Erie also has a full-time social worker on site and 25 to 30 hours a week of speech and psychological counseling services for children who need them.

These specialists take children out of the classroom for one-on-one or small group work, which, according to Costakis, both helps the children and reduces problems in the classroom.

In addition, teachers receive 22 days of vacation each year, 12 sick days and four personal days. It’s not enough to make up for the long hours and the year-round work, according to Schaefer, but the time off makes a difference. “They need every minute of it,” she says.

Melissa Jacobson, who has a master’s degree in education from Columbia University and an early childhood teaching certificate from New York State, was won over by the Erie House approach. “I looked at CPS schools and here, and I got a better feeling from Erie in terms of philosophy,” she says. “The work is very different, and comes from the children. It’s not a cookie cutter curriculum.”