Investing in America’s Children

Investing in America’s Children

In April the Economic Policy Institute released a comprehensive report on child care in America – as an economic driver, a foundation for young children’s later success, and a source of financial stress both for parents seeking childcare and the workforce that provides it. The report is rich with infographics and gives a state-by-state view of the costs. Wisconsin’s data prompted a piece by Wisconsin Public Radio. In it WECA Executive Director Ruth Schmidt points out that despite high costs for families, early childhood teachers in Wisconsin earn an average of about $10 an hour. With an annual average income of $20,080, – 36%- of the childcare workforce relies on public assistance to meet the financial needs of their own families.Childcare-is-out-of-reach
If childcare costs are so high, why aren’t childcare teachers paid better? Part of the answer has to do with child-to-staff ratios. For example, by law one Wisconsin infant teacher can only care for a maximum of four children under the age of two. Meeting infants’ social, cognitive and basic needs requires a great deal of individual attention. Facility operating costs, equipment and supplies, the ever-increasing cost of rent and property, and the cost of complying with various governmental regulations contribute to the high cost. Ms. Schmidt says the onus can’t be on parents, businesses or government individually to come up with a solution, but rather “there has to be some sort of a tri-part approach.”

Mary Claire Babula  June 5, 1950 – December 3, 2015

Mary Claire Babula June 5, 1950 – December 3, 2015

Mary Babula

Mary Claire Babula

The world of early learning in Wisconsin has lost a rare and fiery gem; Mary Babula, recently retired WECA Director of Membership, a dear colleague, friend and mentor has died.

Within two hours of her passing a local child care program came to our offices with a line of jacketed and mittened small souls to sing to us as they do a few times a year.  “ABCD, EFG…” it was only fitting that their little voices escorted Mary on her next journey.  Without knowing, their presence was cathartic.  Their bright smiles, their wide eyes taking everything in, their fidgeting little hands; they are why Mary did all that only Mary could do so very well in her own Mary Babula ways.  For Mary knew, deeply and completely, the work of nurturing, caring for and educating our youngest children to be the most important and worthiest of work.

Mary’s career in early childhood education began as a teacher/director at Christian Day Care Center in Madison in the 1970’s. Later she became the director of Wisconsin Early Childhood Association which grew under her leadership. Mary was an advocate for children’s and teacher’s rights. She challenged law makers and modeled patience and understanding for all.

Mary was someone with many passionate commitments. She was active in music through Womonsong, international travel through Friendship Force, and issues of equity for women and families through the Wisconsin Womens Network. She loved traveling, camping and canoeing and frequently visited the Boundary Waters and many other wilderness areas.

She is survived by her domestic partner, Mary Mastaglio, family members, many many friends and her WECA family to which she gave so much. WECA, together with the Babula and Mastaglio families are discussing how best to honor Mary’s significant legacy and impact with the financial gifts that friends and colleagues have made in her name. In early 2016 we look forward to sharing more details with you.

Why Mentoring Matters

Why Mentoring Matters

We all probably have a story of a person who we might call a mentor. That is, a person who took the time to give helpful advice, served as the role model of the teacher we aspired to be, or encouraged us through a tough time until we came out stronger and more knowledgeable in the end. This is professional development with ‘staying power.’

Peggy Haack

“Mentoring thrives when we create the kinds of work environments that allow teachers to grow on the job into lifelong learners.” -Peggy Haack, WECA Outreach Coordinator, and mentor.

Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in creating more formalized mentoring relationships.  The key word here is “relationships.” The real learning happens when there is a trusting relationship between a learning teacher and a mentor.  Programs experience success and at the same time discover a new pathway of leadership for teachers when they match those willing to serve as mentors to those who are less experienced or skillful.  Other programs choose to work with mentors from outside of their programs.  For both models, an investment of time is required to build a relationship between a learning teacher and a skilled mentor.

I believe that there are three powerful parallels between our work with children and the success of mentoring as a way to grow teacher competence.

First is the concept of relationships. We know this to be the key to unlocking curiosity and an eagerness to learn in children.  It’s the same for adults.  If we trust that someone really cares about who we are, what we think and how we learn, then we aim to please!

Second is the concept of developmentally appropriate practice.  We know from our work with children that if we take the time to figure out just where the child is on the learning curve, we can craft a plan suited to him or her.  We figure out the next step and build upon small successes so the challenges don’t seem overwhelming. Mentoring embodies this “one-to-one” approach.

The third parallel is the concept of reflective practice.  Our work with children teaches us to question why and to seek answers. For example, “Why is this transition so difficult for the children and how can I change it?”  When it comes to professional development, often the learning teacher knows what she wants to change in her practice, but doesn’t know how or maybe even why.  Having a mentor to help sort through the questions and attune to the teacher’s goals may be exactly what it takes.  For the person who is also engaged in formal education, mentoring can be the bridge between taking what one learns in a classroom and through textbooks and actually putting that learning into practice – a process that requires a great deal of reflection.

Mentoring is about supporting teachers as learners through their everyday practice. Mentoring can intentionally implemented as part of a professional development plan.  Mentoring thrives when we create the kinds of work environments that allow teachers to grow on the job into lifelong learners.

Early childhood education ranks as top priority for voters

Early childhood education ranks as top priority for voters

ffyf top priority graphic

For three years running, the First Five Years Fund’s annual bipartisan poll shows that early childhood education is a national priority for Americans, regardless of party. ““For the first time in our three years of polling, American voters’ top priority is making sure children get a strong start in life, a concern equal to improving the overall quality of public education,” says Kris Perry, Executive Director of the First Five Years Fund. In the poll, 89% of voters agree that we need to ensure more children don’t miss out on early learning and socialization experiences during the first five years of life when the brain develops more dramatically. 63% strongly agree on this point.


ffyf invest now graphic

What does this mean for Wisconsin?
For WECA – a statewide organization focused on the child care workforce and programs that raise childcare quality – the findings inspire us to keep moving forward. In myriad ways WECA calls for greater investment in quality early care. Our outreach, education and advocacy on this issue is multi-faceted. In 2015 WECA published Starting Early, Starting Now, a research report that outlines potential ways forward in funding a child care delivery system in Wisconsin that is accessible and affordable to all families. Our interactive “Jack’s story” shows the return on investment Wisconsin taxpayers will see when young children get quality early care right from the start. And as the source detail notes – the financial projections are conservative. Throughout the year WECA staff meet with Wisconsin legislators and serve as policy advisors on key state and national committees focused on young children and the early childhood workforce that is so central to the outcomes we seek. WECA works with community partners and recently, sponsored a viewing and discussion of the Raising of America documentary that is traveling throughout the U.S.

As we move closer to the general election cycle we’ll be increasing our outreach and education on behalf of early childhood education investments in Wisconsin.

Your support is needed – as an advocate in our Forward for Kids initiative – and as a donor.  Contributions enable WECA to strengthen its statewide advocacy work that unites families, policymakers, child care providers and others in building a high quality and affordable system of early care and education for all children.

Everyday Leadership

WECA is Wisconsin’s largest association of childcare providers. In a recent member newsletter, Executive Director Ruth Schmidt shared her reflections on leadership.  To honor the everyday leadership Wisconsin childcare providers exemplify each day, we share Ruth’s valued thoughts.

Ruth Schmidt, Executive Director

Ruth Schmidt, Executive Director

My father, Stephen, was an everyday leader.  He passed away three years ago.  I knew him as a dad, a loving husband to my mother, and a college professor.  And for me, that was more than enough.  He loved me and my siblings like a river that had overrun its banks, a mountain whose peak was always in the clouds going on forever.  He challenged me to be strong enough to know that trust and vulnerability are the truest windows through which to view the goodness of my fellow human beings.  He expected me to follow my passions because that is the sort of life we are called to give to this world.

Over 700 people came to the visitation after Dad died.  I knew he was loved and respected but until that evening in September 2012 I had no idea the impact of his life.  People who he taught in the 1950s as 1st graders came to speak of the lasting imprint he made in their lives, of how his influence shaped who they became.  People who sang in the church choir he directed in the 1960s came to speak of the ongoing joy of music he left in their lives.  Students who studied under him and were advised by him at one of the three colleges he taught at over four decades came and spoke of the better people they had become as a result of being challenged by him to be their best, to always consider the “other,” to question the accepted and live with integrity.  Professors came and spoke of his relentless dedication to his field of study, but more importantly, to the art of teaching.  There were mentions of his prolific writing that offered new insights, of his lecturing and public speaking that left you sure he was addressing just you in a room full of people, of the lifelong relationships he fostered and nurtured through letters, and phone calls and emails.  People came from across the country to pay their final respects because they recognized that their lives were better from having known him.

An everyday leader.  A teacher.  A call to live fully, live passionately.  A demand to question, to consider the “other,” to be open to what is new and hold in reverence much of what is old.  An everyday leader.  A teacher.

I have watched what you do.  I have seen you with children; each child sure you are there for her alone.   I have heard you sing your songs, and move your feet and clap your hands understanding why your voice and your movements and patterns are shaping the next generation. I have seen you make remarkable toys for your classrooms out of items many would have thrown away.  I have looked at you deep in concentration gleaning everything you can from a conference workshop and challenging each other to learn more, create more, teach more, play more, and give more.   I have listened to directors share the struggle you face supporting your staff, meeting your payroll, buying your program’s food and materials, filling out your forms, writing your handbooks, filing your taxes and so much more with few resources.  I have listened to teachers tell of working two jobs because you don’t earn enough in the field of child care but don’t want to leave.  I have listened to family child care providers who have taken out second mortgages in order to keep your program running.  I used to ask myself, “why?”  I don’t anymore.  You are everyday leaders, in the most exceptional ways.  You lead from your hands to your hearts. You lead in a quest for constant improvement.  You lead by modeling, reading, rocking, holding and guiding.

From my father and each of you I have learned lessons to help me become a better leader in the work I do at WECA.  Never have I been more aware of the fact that leadership is a lifelong quest than when I reflect on what I have learned in my 13 years at WECA.  And never have I been more certain of the fact that we lead best when we honor the leaders around us.  Thank you, from the bottom of my heart and the tips of my fingers, for your beautiful everyday leadership.

Return on Investment- Wisconsin-style

Return on Investment- Wisconsin-style

Many studies connect high-quality child care to positive impacts for children as they get older.  And many studies by economists, such as Dr. James Heckman, attach real dollars to the savings that are obtained. Articles, blog postings and opinion pieces appear on this topic with high frequency. The message that it makes good economic sense to invest in early childhood education has hit the mainstream, which is a good thing.

WECA wanted to tell the return on investment story that is unique to Wisconsin.  With funding from the Alliance for Early Success, WECA worked with the Committee for Economic Development to do just that.

Follow the story of Jack – a child who has access to 5-star child care in Wisconsin. See the benefits that accrue, and the dollars saved when certain things don’t happen (being held back a grade in school, being placed in special education, dropping out of high school, being incarcerated, relying on public assistance). See the economic impact when other things do happen (high school and college graduation).  The benefits and numbers grow exponentially as the scenarios expand to show the financial impact on Wisconsin if all our low-income children attended 5-star childcare programs.

WECA looks forward to sharing this powerful new advocacy tool and we ask you to share it widely and often. It’s yet another way to work together to create new practices and policies that enable all children to start off strong.

Learning to be a Leader: Reflections from a Preschool Teacher

Learning to be a Leader: Reflections from a Preschool Teacher

By Robin Reisdorf, Preschool Mentor Teacher at Kids’ Safari Learning Center

Fourteen years ago I walked into my first preschool classroom.  Three year olds surrounded me, asking if baby squirrels have teeth, where butterflies go when it rains, and what the pink dots were on my face.  I was sixteen years old; unaware that my after-school job would become my career.  Quickly I grew to believe that early childhood education is the most effective way to change the world, and I wanted to be a part of it!

Robin Reisdorf

“Change must originate from within the early childhood education field, instead of being thrust upon us.” -Robin Reisdorf

I learned at workshops, conferences, college and through experienced teachers.  Slowly I morphed into an experienced teacher.  Training new teachers was added to my work responsibilities.  While I was told that I was a leader, I didn’t feel like a leader.  I became committed to learning how to be an effective leader, which lead me to seek out a T.E.A.C.H. scholarship and the Leadership Credential at UW-Milwaukee.  One of the first things I learned is that being in a leadership role does not automatically make you a leader.  I needed to develop specific skills.

One valuable lesson that resulted in significant professional growth for me related to the theories of emotional intelligence and their practical application. Previously, I considered classroom activities or my classroom environment while remaining personally removed. I have since learned the skill of self-reflection.  While becoming increasingly self-aware, I am simultaneously challenged to practice self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.  Growing my emotional intelligence has increased my ability to manage emotions in a positive way, empathize with others, and defuse conflict.

To conclude the Leadership Credential, all students create final projects that incorporate their learning. Inspired by my struggles to balance mentoring new teachers with my daily teaching responsibilities, I developed a plan for a mentoring and coaching program.  My plan creates opportunities for early childhood educators to become reflective practitioners, who develop intentional teaching practices through professional development while maintaining respect for each teacher’s individuality.  I believe this will nurture a positive school community, enhance teachers’ confidence and performance, and improve the learning environment.

After receiving my credential, I will continue learning and connecting with other professionals in the field. I am eager to share my final project with my administrators and work toward implementing a mentoring and coaching pilot program at Kids’ Safari Learning Center.  We can share our success with other early childhood centers, so that they will also be able to incorporate mentoring and coaching programs to support their staff.  I also envision developing a Mentoring and Coaching Credential.

During class, we watched the video “Extraordinary Visions” by Dewitt Jones.  He talked about moving from imagination to imagin-action.  This credential challenged me to imagine change, be inspired by a vision, and take action. Although my credential is coming to an end, the application of the knowledge and skills is only just beginning.  Change must originate from within the early childhood education field, instead of being thrust upon us.  As a classroom teacher, I will have an active role promoting positive change within our field.