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One way to appreciate teachers: These schools provide their day care

CARLY FLANDRO of Idaho Education News and VALERIA OLIVARES of The Dallas Morning News
May 07, 2024

NAMPA, Idaho (AP) -- When Christina Zimmerman returned to teaching last year after maternity leave, she grappled with postpartum depression that she says could have led to quitting her job.

But her school's onsite day care made all the difference, as she knew her daughter was just a few classrooms away.

"I can be mom and teacher in the same breath," said Zimmerman, who teaches fourth grade at Endeavor Elementary in Nampa, Idaho. "I've dreamed of teaching since second grade. Truthfully, it's all I've wanted to do, but I also want to be there for my child."

In states such as Idaho and Texas, where funding for early childhood education is limited, some schools are spearheading initiatives to provide quality, affordable child care. It's a teacher retention tool as much as it is a way to ensure youngsters are prepared when they enter kindergarten.

Some districts are transforming donated spaces -- a former recycling center or house -- into day cares for staff and, in some cases, for first responders in the area as well. Others are incorporating child care on their campuses.

The schools hope parenting teachers don't have to choose between career and motherhood, as the education workforce remains predominantly female.

___

This series on how the child care crisis affects working parents -- with a focus on solutions -- is produced by the Education Reporting Collaborative, a coalition of eight newsrooms, including The Hechinger Report, AL.com, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, Idaho Education News, The Post & Courier, and The Seattle Times.

___

Women are more likely than men to leave their careers to care for children, data shows. On top of that, teachers' salaries aren't keeping up with inflation, according to the National Education Association, even as child care costs have become more untenable.

Dropping out of the workforce can be an attractive option for educators with young children, which adds to retention challenges already facing schools.

"If we're going to support our community, ... we need the very best teachers in the classroom," said Tabitha Branum, superintendent of Richardson schools, north of Dallas. Her district runs two day cares, with goals of opening more.

"This is one of the strategies that we have in place to attract and retain the very best of the best," Branum said.

In 2022, district leaders nationwide reported increased staff vacancies; most administrators -- 63% -- cited the pandemic as a cause. Last school year, nearly 1 in 4 teachers said they were likely to quit their job due to stress, disillusionment, low salaries and heavy workloads, according to a RAND survey.

School-sponsored child care can mitigate that stress.

The devastating feeling of dropping off her three-month-old daughter Gracee with a caregiver each day still haunts Heather Yarbrough, even 14 years later.

She cried every day for weeks, but didn't have the option to quit her job as an elementary reading specialist in Nampa.

Yarbrough and her husband, both educators, needed two incomes to get by financially. Over time, she realized having a career was healthy for her and her family.

That brought her to a eureka moment: "Why do we have to choose? There's got to be a better way," she said.

Now Endeavor's principal, she spearheaded an on-campus day care. Funded through a combination of grants and parent fees, the program is in its fourth year. It's become a recruitment and retention tool for the district, which doesn't pay teachers as much as neighboring districts.

A dozen of the school's 30 teachers use the day care.

Child care for school employees has trickle-down benefits for students, said Van-Kim Lin, an early childhood development researcher at nonprofit Child Trends.

The kids can build stronger relationships with educators, counselors or other staff members because turnover is minimized and children are on campus at younger ages.

"This is a great strategy by which you can ... support both children, families and then also on the flip side, districts and their workforce," she said.

As Molly Hillier, an instructional coach at Endeavor and mother of a child in the day care, put it: "It benefits students because if you have happier teachers, ... they can pour that into the kids."

The school's teaching staff is predominantly young and female, and it had become routine for teachers to drop out of the workforce to care for their infants or to move on to less stressful or higher-paying jobs. In Nampa, teachers start out earning about $44,000 and top out at about $69,000, compared with a range of about $47,000 to $86,000 in the nearby Boise School District.

But now, "Nampa School District right now can offer me something nobody else can," Zimmerman said. "That time with my child is invaluable -- it's worth its weight in gold."

When Texas school counselor Kelly Mountjoy decided she wanted to start a family, she wondered if she could handle working and being a mother.

Three children later, she and her husband considered expanding their family by one more. However, the costs would add up: She was already paying more than $1,200 a month to send one of her kids to day care. So they hesitated.

"It's just so impossible to pay child care with that many kiddos," said Mountjoy, who works at Parkhill Junior High in Richardson.

But now, the district offers teachers subsidized child care for only $350 a month. That made all the difference for Mountjoy, who could save roughly $1,700 a month between her two youngest children.

"We could have another kid like we had wanted to," Mountjoy said. "We could afford it."

Texas school officials, frustrated with failed legislative attempts to fund teachers raises, recently began unfolding strategies to recruit and retain teachers. Large districts with bigger budgets offered higher pay, while others experimented with four-day school weeks or other benefits to sweeten the job.

"We may not be able to pay every teacher what we should be able to," said Branum, the Richardson superintendent. "But what if we could create a compensation package that took a little stress off of them?"

Richardson has a starting salary of $60,000 -- above the state average of about $53,300 -- but is also in the highly competitive Dallas-area market. So now RISD offers employees a health clinic for acute care with a $10 copay, no insurance required, and free counseling -- plus the help with child care.

The district runs two child learning academies, Little Eagles and Little Mustangs, that serve more than 120 children starting at 6 weeks old until age 3, when they become eligible for the district's pre-K program.

With more than 134 children on the district's wait list as of the end of April, Branum said they're considering at least one more center that could open as soon as next year.

Mountjoy said the perk gives her peace of mind because she knows her children receive high-quality attention.

"I know that my kids are taken care of really well," Mountjoy said. "They know the kids individually and know their strengths and where they struggle." ___

Randy Schrader of Idaho Education News contributed.

___

The Associated Press' education coverage receives financial support from multiple private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP's standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and funded coverage areas at AP.org.

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