Jan 29, 2017Valley News
Tim Camerato
Thetford — Sitting in a circle surrounded by eight preschoolers, Veronica White slowly turned the pages to read from Quack and Count, a book that teaches children to count to seven.
 
“Seven ducklings in a row. Count those ducklings as they go,” she read, as the children at Maple Leaf Children’s Center listened intently.
 
The lesson soon turned to counting, and the children at the Thetford day care center together lifted their fingers to create combinations adding up to seven: five fingers on one hand and two on the other, three fingers on one hand and four on the other.
 
“You’ve got the pattern,” White, a teacher in the preschool program, told the class before throwing in a trick question.
 
“Anyone have six fingers on one hand?”
 
Such exercises offered at Maple Leaf and other child care programs help prepare youngsters to be ready when they enter kindergarten, said Cynthia Brush-Pires, the program’s director, and also serve the larger purpose of furthering the development of children’s brains, primarily through play.
 
But all Upper Valley children don’t have access to the same preschool education. While parents have long struggled to make arrangements for day care, several recent developments appear to have made the task — one that requires not only finding an available slot but also an opening that won’t break the family budget — even more formidable. Almost all of those developments are related to staffing. Teaching at a day care center is demanding and comparatively low-paid work, and centers are increasingly competing with public schools, which generally pay better. Meanwhile, the challenge that Vermont child care centers face in finding teachers has been exacerbated by new state regulations that require additional training. And some smaller programs that have provided entry-level jobs to young teachers over the years have closed.
 
“Child care providers and early educators are not making money,” said Cindy Binzen, an assistant coordinator at the recently closed Child Care Project at Dartmouth College, an organization that provided teacher training and specialized in referring parents to day care centers. “Child care centers are really struggling to get by financially, which is why there aren’t more opening.”
 
Affordability Struggle
 
Binzen said she knows of only one new Upper Valley program that has opened or expanded in recent months: FitKids at the River Valley Club in Lebanon, which moved into a new home last summer. But around the same time, Green Mountain Children’s Center was closing the doors of its Lebanon campus, displacing 40 children and 17 employees.
 
At the time, Green Mountain officials attributed the closing to increased costs and a drop in grant funding. Sharon Miller-Dombroski, the center’s new executive director, said Green Mountain’s Hartford and Claremont branches were able to take in some of those students and employees, but they still struggle to make ends meet.
 
“We are very cautious with our income and expenses. Nobody’s driving a Mercedes-Benz,” she said. “It’s a tight budget.”
 
According to a recent report on the state of child care prepared for the state of Vermont, parents generally recognize the importance of providing their children with a high-quality preschool education. Frequently, however, the cost is too high or a program with available space is too difficult to find.
 
“Too many Vermonters lack access to high-quality, affordable child care,” the Blue Ribbon Commission on Financing High Quality, Affordable Child Care said in the report it released in early December. “Currently, over 36,000 children birth to age 5 live in Vermont, and nearly half (47 percent) of all infants and toddlers likely to need care do not have access to any regulated child care program.”
 
That’s particularly important because of the developmental and economic effects preschool has on the Green Mountain state, said Charlotte Ancel, the commission’s chairwoman and a vice president and general counsel at Green Mountain Power. Money invested in child care reaps such benefits as allowing parents to work, avoiding or reducing future special education costs and increasing the future earnings potential of the children enrolled in programs.
 
Programs are also important, the report said, because numerous studies have demonstrated that the first few years of life are critically important to a child’s development, particularly for those who are born to low-income families.
 
New Hampshire’s child care system is also lacking, according to ChildCare Aware of America, an advocacy group that found an early childhood education costs Sullivan County parents an average of $12,313 annually for center-based care. Family-based child care averages $8,504 annually in Sullivan County. Both exceed the national standard for what is considered affordable child care — which the group says shouldn’t exceed 10 percent of a household’s income. The median household income in Sullivan County was $56,032 in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
 
But finding the type of care that both offers an enriching program and caters to today’s work schedules is difficult, said D’Arcy Quinlan, a new mother from Lebanon. She works 12-hour nursing shifts three days a week and hasn’t been able to find care for her 5-month-old son.
 
At upward of $1,000 a month for full-time care, tuition costs are also too high, Quinlan said, and there are a limited number of infant programs.
 
“With all the rent, and car payments, all the bills and groceries, it takes a toll,” she said.
 
Until she can find a program, her son is cared for by a patchwork of family and friends. Quinlan’s husband often doesn’t start work until noon, when a friend takes over care until her mother can pick up Quinlan’s son around 5 p.m.
 
“Even that’s a struggle,” Quinlan said. “Not everyone has the same days off.”
 
A scenario in which parents are scrambling — and failing — to arrange suitable child care is familiar to many Upper Valley child care center directors.
 
Brush-Pires keeps a running list of programs to recommend when Maple Leaf is at capacity. Because Maple Leaf’s preschool and toddler programs operate in the basement of the Thetford Congregational Church, it has limited space and can accommodate only 18 children.
 
“I’ve had people cry on the phone, especially when they’re looking for infant care, who will say, ‘But I have to go back to work,’ ” Brush-Pires said. “I turn people away every week who are looking.”
 
The Blue Ribbon Commission found that the scarcity of early childhood education is commonly cited as a major barrier to work by parents. About 27 percent of Vermont children live in single-parent households where that parent is the sole source of income. While Vermont provides sliding-scale subsidies to parents to help pay for child care, such aid reaches only 23 percent of families.
 
The federal Child Care and Development Fund provides matching block grants to both New Hampshire and Vermont to subsidize the cost of child care. In 2016, it awarded more than $16.4 million in federal funds to aid Granite State families and $10 million for Vermonters. Last year, Vermont was required to match about $2.3 million of that grant money, while New Hampshire was called on to provide almost $6 million, according to federal figures.
 
In 2015, those funds subsidized 4,300 Vermont children a month on average and 5,500 children in New Hampshire, according to the Federal Office of Child Care.
 
However, each state allocates aid differently. Vermont offers families a sliding scale based on household income. The maximum income for a family of three is $39,576. If a household makes that amount, the state would provide 10 percent of child care costs.
 
For a Vermont family of three to receive 100 percent of child care costs, it must make no more than about $19,800, according to the state Department of Children and Families.
 
New Hampshire also applies a sliding scale, and a family of three cannot make more than $50,400. The state requires households making that much to contribute 20 percent of their income to child care, about $10,000.
 
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott has called for increasing state subsidies to help more families pay for child care. His proposed budget directs an additional $7.5 million to the state Child Care Financial Assistance Program, along with $1 million in full-day preschool programs for children coming from lowest-income households.
 
Vermont families can expect to pay an average of $9,970 a year on care for a 4-year-old, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank based in Washington, D.C. Infant care averages $11,270 yearly.
 
In New Hampshire, the institute calculates that care for a 4-year-old costs $9,457 on average, while infant care costs $11,810.
 
At Maple Leaf, parents can expect to pay $1,140 a month for full-day toddler care, and preschoolers cost about $1,100.
 
Other nonprofits charge based on a household income with the help of grants, such as Children’s Center of the Upper Valley, in Lebanon, where five full days of infant care costs about $769 a month for families making less than $30,000 annually. Toddlers from households with the same income would cost $686 a month, and preschoolers are $624.
 
The center serves 85 full- and part-time students, and will likely be able to expand to its licensed capacity of 95 students when its new infant and toddler space in completed, said Jenn Hosmer, the center’s program director.
 
Staffing Challenges
 
As parents scramble to find spaces at area programs, Hosmer said, centers are in turn finding it hard to meet demands for a high-quality education without breaking the bank.
 
“It’s difficult to find qualified teachers,” she said. “I don’t think early childhood (education) is valued enough in today’s society.”
 
Children’s Center of the Upper Valley requires its teachers to have a minimum of 18 college credits, or an associate degree in a related field, but tuition and grants don’t allow the center to pay its employees as much as their public school counterparts.
 
In Vermont, early childhood educators earned a median hourly wage of $11.25 in 2015, according to the Blue Ribbon Commission’s report. That was less than the median wage for retail clerks ($11.51) and stock clerks ($11.58), based on Department of Labor data.
 
“Our goal is to keep good quality staff, but it’s a challenge financially,” Maple Leaf’s Brush-Pires said, because her facility can’t offer the pay and benefits offered by elementary schools.
 
Depending on their level of education, educators at Maple Leaf can expect to make anywhere between $10 and $15 an hour, she estimated.
 
“Our staff works really hard. It’s one of the most difficult jobs, I think, and one of the most important jobs in the country,” Brush-Pires said. “It’s hard to make ends meet.”
 
After working for three years at a child care center in Hanover, Kassandra Sarantopoulos said low pay encouraged her to take a job as a full-time nanny.
 
“I feel child center employees are under-appreciated,” she said. “The pay is not the best, and the benefits are usually not good either.”
 
Sarantopoulos, who holds a bachelor’s degree from Franklin Pierce University, took up her position as a nanny five years ago and said the job still allows her to teach, but in a more intimate setting. She’s also allowed to bring her daughter along, saving on her own child care costs.
 
“Being a nanny, I suggest anyone get one,” she said. “I would do it for my daughter.”
 
Parents hiring a nanny can perform background checks and require a degree in childhood development or teaching, Sarantopoulos said, but also pay less. She said it’s not difficult for a group to pool their children under one nanny and pay roughly $1,300 a month combined.
 
Parents could also choose to send children to a for-profit child care center, such as FitKids Childcare at the River Valley Club in Lebanon. There, 12 classrooms cater to the needs of 135 students between 6 weeks and 9 years old.
 
The new FitKids facilities and adventure playground opened with 80 children in July and has continued to grow, said Jenn Parker, the program’s director. But FitKids also faces some of the same struggles as its nonprofit counterparts, including finding qualified staff.
 
“That has been the biggest challenge that we found,” Parker said. “Who’s hiring, how many applications are you looking for, how are you advertising? Staffing has been a challenge.”
 
Parker said the program pays $11-$13.50 an hour for starting employees. Monthly tuition ranges anywhere from $1,420 for full-time infant and toddler care to $1,035 for full-time pre-kindergarten.
 
“We are a small community in a sense,” Parker said, meaning there are too few preschool teachers for the existing child care providers. She also said fewer people are entering the profession.
 
Added Costs
 
Joe Asch, who owns the River Valley Club, said there’s another hurdle facing programs in the Upper Valley: over-regulation.
 
He received approval from the Lebanon Planning Board in July 2015 to expand the FitKids program from inside the River Valley Club to an adjacent lot in the Centerra business park. The board ruled that sprinklers should be installed in the new 9,400-square-foot, single-story building — a requirement that Asch said he believed was not called for by the International Building Code, and which cost him $75,000.
 
State regulations for child care facilities also added to costs, he said. Rules governing space and bathroom accessibility aren’t governed by “common sense,” Asch said, adding that roughly $500,000 in building costs could have been avoided.
 
Vermont centers also say they’re facing too many new regulations with little support from state government. In September, the state updated its regulations for the first time since 2001. Reeva Murphy, deputy commissioner of the Child Development Division, said the overhaul was the result of years of work and more than 500 comments from the industry.
 
The process streamlined state regulations, she said, but also added more requirements for teachers and programs. Educators have a one-year grace period to meet the new regulations, including stricter education standards for teachers. For instance, teacher associates, who are allowed to lead instruction for children on their own, require either an associate degree or 21 college credits and 12 months experience to be employed. The old rules required only 12 credits.
 
For Sheila Geoffrey, the changes were too much in too little time.
 
In November, after 13 years in the business, Geoffrey closed the child care program she had operated out of her Thetford home. She had 10 children in the program and often worked 12-hour days teaching, cleaning and preparing food for her students.
 
When she was told she needed additional training two evenings a week for three months to keep the business running, she worried it would take away from the evenings and weekends needed to attend to her elderly parents.
 
“It was either give up the work that I was going to be doing with my relatives or give up child care,” she said.
 
Geoffrey said she understands why the new regulations are in place, but argued they’re weakening the quality of education by forcing established programs out.
 
“There’s so many more illegal-run day cares now,” she said, adding some of her students transferred to a program skirting the rules.
 
Funding changes in Vermont also worry some child care providers. In August, the federal Child Care Development Block Grant Act was reauthorized, prompting the state to make changes in child care training.
 
It signed a contract with the Community College of Vermont, and cut funding to programs such as the Child Care Project at Dartmouth College, which closed its doors on Dec. 30 after operating 33 years.
 
“We’ll have a much more coordinated system with consistency across the state in terms of offerings, affordability (and) access,” Murphy, of Vermont’s Child Development Division, said.
 
But the Community College of Vermont isn’t quite ready to take on the workshops or coalition-building that the Child Care Project performed, said Brush-Pires, of Maple Leaf. And that has program directors worried.
 
“You can feel very isolated. You’re isolated in your classroom and if you’re small, there’s one preschool teacher, so when do you have the time to get together with other teachers?” Brush-Pires asked.
 
The Child Care Project provided that sort of opportunity to teachers and directors.
 
“I think there are a lot of people feeling uncertain of how they’re going to meet (training requirements),” said Binzen, the project’s assistant coordinator.
 
The project also ran a referral service for parents looking for placement, which is being taken over by The Family Place in Norwich.
 
Ultimately, directors and educators say, they’re looking at smaller measures to help maintain costs while expanding access. Some have proposed a coalition of Upper Valley centers that could band together to purchase goods and services, and others hope to run joint job fairs.
 
Almost all agree what they need most is additional funding, a conclusion the Blue Ribbon Commission also came to. It proposed fully funding early childhood care for families making up to $48,600, double the federal poverty level for a family of four. Support would then taper off as a family makes more.
 
Overall, the commission expects the effort could cost more than $90 million for the benefits, which could pay off economically in the long run, according to Ancel, the commission’s chairwoman.
 
The Blue Ribbon Commission estimates Vermont spends $130 million in state and federal money for early childhood care and learning.
 
Early education “is something that everybody should have and the answer is we’ve got to do it effectively and more efficiently,” she said.
 
But it’s still unclear if there’s political will to implement funding changes, or how quickly those efforts could take effect. For now, Vermont is focusing efforts on improving training and ensuring the programs that do exist are of a high quality, said Murphy. Although she admitted finding a funding solution could be next.
 
“We want to be part of changing that dynamic to make it more affordable and to get (centers) the kind of support they need to expand,” she said.
 
Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.
 

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