A Trustworthy Village
Madison is a great place to work and do business for lots of reasons. Here's one more: child care.
By Pat Dillon / Photos by Martha Busse
I clearly remember the first time I crossed the street pregnant with my twins. This simple task was suddenly upgraded from dodging traffic to protecting my children. While some pregnant women obsessed over eating for two, from that moment, I obsessed over the safety of three - myself, now the human equivalent of a Wells Fargo armored truck, and the double fortune I carried. The more I protected myself, the healthier my cargo. And, as with most moms, that sense of being a protector only increased with time. Fourteen years later, the last thing I say to my girls when they leave the house is, "Be safe." Once they're out of my sight, their safety hinges on a wing and a prayer.
Providing a safe haven for our children is what binds all families; it's everybody's issue whether you work inside or outside the home. We wake comforted by a sense of our children's safe presence and sleep soundly knowing we're in control through the night. Leaving them in the care of others, either by choice or by necessity, is serious business. Trusting someone else to do what we can't illustrates America's belief that "it takes a village to raise a child." When a "village" invests in this philosophy, it builds a better foundation for its community's future through its children. The city of Madison is an example of one such "village" in the world that gets it.
My own experience with day care is two-sided. As a new mom, I did after-school child care for a single mother. I did it as an empathetic gesture, having had a pre-motherhood career outside my home. I thought I understood going in early and working late, but when this mother's hours became my hours, I wasn't up for the job. While my short stint as provider gave me perspective on parent-provider protocol, when I needed child care, I knew nothing about the other side - state licensing, certification, accreditation, and regulation - the child care watchdogs. More importantly, I had no idea that in my backyard, Madison was a national child care trendsetter from which I could glean all kinds of important info.
My dream day care provider came in the form of another preschool mom, Peggy Hendrikson of Stoughton. Hendrikson had quit her management banking position to open an accredited family child care center, which she ran with a preschool sensibility and a business savvy, each benefiting from her child-friendly disposition. She kept herself educated and gave workshops to other providers through Community Coordinated Child Care (4Cs), a nonprofit resource and referral agency. I wanted my kids in her care. But, like any exceptional service, quality child care is in demand, and we never got in. Hendrikson recently left 14 years of child care for a nursing degree, but gave me a provider's perspective on finding the right place to trust with your kids.
"Number one, you want to interview someone while they're interacting with children and go with your gut feeling," says Hendrikson. "How is that person interacting with your own child? And how does that person react to the stress of the other children in the room acting up? Another thing that's important is how convenient is the provider's environment for them to work in? And is it child-friendly? Are kids encouraged to do things for themselves? Like, is there a step stool in the bathroom so they can wash their own hands?"
The right environment for your kids isn't necessarily right for the family in line behind you, but one common thread is everyone's need to do serious homework. Family child care centers are structured differently from group centers, but according to 4Cs' director George Hagenauer, there is no hierarchy; each performs a service and each has its own set of variables. But, Hagenauer advises, even before you start looking, start saving. Child care can be, on the early end, as expensive as college is on the later end.
"Quality levels vary a lot within each sector," says Hagenauer. "Several years ago we did a lot of work with violations at the state licensing office and we found probably about 8 to 10 percent of centers with massive violations, chronic problems. Likewise in family day care. Or I can introduce you to family day-care providers who've been in operation 25 years, sometimes having a master's degree, all sorts of backgrounds, and I can find you the same thing within group centers."
It takes a village, but not just any village.
Madison is a national leader in quality child care for a reason. In 1975 Mayor Paul Soglin developed the nation's first municipal child-care support program for low-income families, a national model that is still in place. Madison was the first city in the nation to establish its own municipal accreditation program, nurturing a stable base of regulated child-care family and group centers, a model for the national accreditation programs.
The city is still working hard to preserve this high-cost, low-wage industry wrought with obstacles, mostly related to recent cuts in federal funding - cuts that block low-income families' access to the system; force staff salary cuts that rock job stability, leading to rapid staff turnover, a threat to continuity between provider and child; and let grants for accreditation and training disappear.
But when federal funding was plentiful and the state could divvy up federal dollars for local projects, Madison nurtured a hotbed of locally funded support initiatives. For example, the Child-Care Wage Initiative, a 2002 city- and county-funded project, confirmed that wage compensation boosts staff morale, thus increasing quality care in a system plagued with low-paid staff, many of whom carry four-year degrees. Unfortunately, these findings did not translate into ongoing funds for quality improvement as present and future federal child-care funding (including the Child-Care Quality Block Grant program that funded the project) is in short supply. So scarce that, according to Teresa Hoveland, executive director of Fitchburg child-care center Woods Hollow, grants are no longer available for centers that are not currently accredited. This is a "Catch-22" for providers who need grant money to improve quality so they can meet accreditation standards.
Resource and referral agencies, like 4Cs, do their part to keep Madison's child-care system one of the nation's finest despite these barriers. Aside from city-contracted certification and training to providers, 4Cs gathers valuable data on child-care trends, administers a federal food program to providers in 20 counties, and offers resources and referrals to families and corporations in need of child-care support in Dane County and five other Wisconsin regions, making it an important resource in a family's decision-making process.
Madison also benefits from statewide initiatives, such as the Governor's Quality Counts for Kids Task Force that's currently developing a child-care ranking system. The statewide plan targeted for 2006 is designed to enhance the level of quality by giving parents rankings as additional help in their child-care choice, thus raising the child-care quality bar.
This system, according to Department of Workforce Development secretary Roberta Gassman, is meant to ensure a quality child-care system, which, she says, "is an important step in strengthening our children's future." And to ensure an equitable system, the Quality Counts Task Force has developed rating critieria encompassing the needs of both small family child-care and large group centers. "In addition," says Rose Lynch, DWD director of communications, "technical assistance will be built into the system for large and small centers to help all programs strive for higher quality."
The theory behind Madison's proactive child-care approach is simple - more dollars spent now mean fewer spent later when our children give back as healthy and productive adult members of our community. "Every dollar invested in high-quality early education returns seven dollars in savings by reducing special education placements, school failure, juvenile pregnancy, and crime," Soglin wrote in a March 2003 article for the Center on Wisconsin Strategy website.
Hagenauer of 4Cs calls the system "savvy." Dane County, he says, "is actually amongst the best in the country, for at least right now," he says, suggesting the black cloud of more funding cuts looming on the horizon. "The city of Madison is one of the few places in the country that has invested local levy dollars into developing high-quality child care. The county has viewed the money coming in for low-income child care as a means of developing a very strong child-care system as opposed to just addressing whatever minimal needs might be coming out of the low-income population. We're benefiting from almost 30 years worth of investment and creative thinking on the local level that doesn't happen anywhere else in the country."
The Center on Wisconsin Strategy research director Laura Dresser, who evaluated the data gathered by the Child-Care Wage Initiative, sees a slightly less rosy picture. "The child-care national system and the Madison system are riddled with poor quality, poor information for the parents, and it's very costly for parents. So to say that it's better than other places is not to say that it's particularly state-of-the-art in international comparison," says Dresser. "But I think Madison has been extraordinary. The 4Cs' and the city's accreditation programs are both truly strong and national models, but it doesn't solve what is essentially a national problem of having this entirely privatized system."
Every day is Take Your Child to Work Day.
Borrowing from the "it-takes-a-village" philosophy, doesn't corporation-supported child care make enormous sense? When workers have reliable child care, everybody wins. It would seem that if children in high-quality child-care centers are healthier and happier, then their parents - read, the workforce - would be, too. Meriter and St. Marys hospitals, both of whom offer on-site child care to their employees at competitive rates, understand that providing this for parents benefits all.
Deirdre Hargrove-Krieghoff, director of St. Marys child-care center, says her employer's philosophy supports all of the above. "Part of the push [to create an on-site child-care center] at the time was parents advocating for something on-site that would benefit breastfeeding moms, and dads that wanted to come over and visit," says Hargrove-Krieghoff. "And that has a direct connection to their sense of well-being when they're at work, knowing their child is in a safe place and they're close."
Meriter media relations director Mae Knowles says having her kids on-site kept her from "ever looking at a want ad for nine years" and helped build a sense of ongoing community. Her son Alex, 16, now volunteers where he once played.
But corporate-sponsored child care outside the health-care industry in Madison is lacking. Knowles attributes this to prohibitively high insurance costs. The health-care industry can absorb such costs, because its high-risk nature requires carrying such insurance anyway. While many Madison-area corporations use 4Cs to find quality child care for their workers, Woods Hollow Children's Center is the only corporation-supported child-care center of its kind in the Madison area. The relationship between Promega and Woods Hollow, according to Woods Hollow executive director Hoveland, is a basic give-and-take - Promega contributes money annually toward Woods Hollow's operating budget, which helps to support quality child-care standards. In return, Promega families get priority placement over the general public.
Woods Hollow, located next to Promega in the research park Fitchburg Center, is a nonprofit that's priced competitively, but high-quality standards push its rates slightly higher than average. It has a diversified staff and a 23 percent turnover rate. This is notable in this low-paying industry that averages a 50-to 70-percent turnover rate, according to Hoveland. Promega's annual contribution helps boost quality pre-school-based programming, so creativity and learning are lateral with nurturing and caring. This, along with other Promega perks, like computer tech support, free on-site car oil changes, and on-site massages, nurtures an environment that encourages the Woods Hollow (and Promega) staff to stay put.
I visited Woods Hollow and was impressed. The building is architecturally rendered to stimulate a child's creativity - primary and secondary colors enhance atrium ceilings and geometrically shaped windows, and run throughout connecting various levels that look down into a villa-style cafeteria where little lunchers sit. Here happy children eat chunks of fresh broccoli like some kids will only eat french fries. The center's full-time nutritionist stands in a sunken floor designed to put her at eye level with groups of hungry kids.
Each age level resides in a separate "house," a labyrinth of rooms built in view of what they call the "winter garden," their outside play area, itself surrounded by natural woods. The quality here is as palatable as the children's little side dish of peaches.
It probably isn't reasonable to believe that the mission statement of all Madison corporations might someday include providing child care for their employee's children. But when I hear that even with the state of Wisconsin pumping over $300 million annually into child-care subsidies for low-income children, and with Governor Doyle leading initiatives to improve our child-care system, Madison's both a child-care leader and quality-challenged at the same time, I wonder. Maybe it isn't enough to just take our children's hands and lead them safely across our city-provided crosswalks. Maybe we need to look both ways and find our own safe paths. After all, protecting our children is everybody's issue, and when our children are grown, their issues become the village's. They'll either contribute to the collective good or borrow from it. It's a choice.
Pat Dillon is a freelance writer living in Madison.