Charles Winkleman

Burlington Politics from the Left

The YMCA’s Early Education Expansion Will Help Itself, Hurt Others

Dec
20

As someone who works directly with vulnerable populations, it’s often hard to feel optimistic in the current national and local political environment. It’s particularly difficult to see policy decisions and actions taking place in our city that inadvertently end up negatively impacting the vulnerable populations they are meant to help. The YMCA’s planned early education expansion is a good example of this, where they will add 100 more classroom spaces, 50% for families on childcare subsidy. On the surface this looks like a clearly positive addition to the city and especially for children living in poverty, but without any coordination from the larger early education community, this decision will likely do more damage than good.

Last week I wrote about how Burlington’s early education system is strained to the point of full-blown crisis. One critical part of this crisis is that preschools, in programs throughout the spectrum, have significant trouble finding and retaining highly educated teachers who can work with traumatized populations. A friend of mine at a different highly rated center said it took them an entire year to fill a single teaching spot. It turns out that when the cost of living is high and early educators make under $15 an hour, graduates choose to move elsewhere. That’s not even considering the nearly $30,000 in average debt students have when they graduate UVM, with debt repayments equaling 6 weeks of pay for 10+ consecutive years.

My school offers a good example, and I hope this information won’t get me into trouble, but I do believe it’s important to be honest and open about how our school struggles. My school is one of the best in the city if not the state (I say this to brag about the amazing work of my coworkers and directors, because if I was as good as them I’d be more focused on curriculum, not on political blogging!), and we recently put out an ad to hire substitute teachers on a per diem basis. After 3 months, only one person sent in an application. I think it’s pretty clear that the situation is dire.

Now, in a system where quality teachers are already scarce, the YMCA is looking to add 50 infant/toddler spots and 50 preschool spots. If we assume that 2 FT and 1 PT teachers will be hired for every classroom, which is fairly common, and each infant/toddler classroom has 8 children while each preschool classroom has 16 children, the Y will need to hire conservatively 27 teachers, most of whom will need 4-year college degrees and a teaching license. So, while it is nearly impossible to find lower-qualified substitutes, the Y will need another 27 highly trained educators. Add the fact that last year at the governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission, after reading this letter that my staff and I wrote discussing our successes and challenges, newly hired YMCA CEO Kyle Dodson commented that the letter was overly dramatic. I have a lot of doubt that these new positions will pay a fair, livable wage. I feel sorry for the unlucky worker who has to hire for the expansion.

Just to reiterate: The YMCA will expand way too quickly in an environment when every center is struggling. At best, schools like mine, that already cannot compete with the Y in terms of fundraising and advertising, will need to raise salaries just to keep staff and not have to compete in an even tighter labor market. This means that tuition will rise for families, especially those in the middle of the income ladder. More spots for those with wealth and those without, but the middle and lower middle class will be squeezed even worse. On top of that, without highly trained staff who know how to work with children with trauma, the Y will likely see incredibly high rates of teacher and student turnover, and all quality in all centers will start to suffer. Worst case scenario, the Y pushes centers like mine out of business, leaving a handful of larger early childhood ‘factories’, like Heartworks, to choose from.

It’s a lose-lose, and I think any gains for the few families who get the new spots will be eaten up by system destabilization and potential closure of other centers. Is the risk of destabilizing the system worth it? Or should the city take its time, actually work with early childhood educators, and make sure the centers that are currently open can improve on quality and teacher retention until we as a community figure out a sustainable plan?

Burlington’s Early Childhood Education is in Crisis

Dec
04

As a preschool teacher, a graduate of the Snelling Center’s Early Childhood Leadership Institute and as a 2017 city council candidate who campaigned for universal publicly funded early childhood education, it is fair to say I’m pretty passionate about early childhood education, especially at the public policy level. Last year my school even wrote a letter to the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Early Childhood Education to discuss how much it costs to run a high quality top-rated program, how hard it is to run that program and how everyone in the system suffers due to a severe lack of funding.

While our own Mayor Weinberger promotes his market-based funding scheme for increasing early childhood education in the city, (twice now remaining relatively silent on the matter in non-election years), now is the time to discuss the many, many challenges Burlington’s early education community is facing, and how these challenges are bringing many centers onto the verge of a full blown crisis of care. Since last May, I have reached out to Weinberger’s office multiple times, but my request to meet with him about these issues have been repeatedly ignored. So I’m hoping that if I put my concerns out into the world, maybe just maybe this will make its way to our mayor and he will choose to listen.

Here are the biggest issues.

1) I take no joy in writing this, as I know firsthand the pressures of keeping a sometimes chaotic room full of children safe. That being said, there are real problems right now with several of the ‘high quality’ programs already operating in Burlington, where two centers have lost a STAR, one because children were left unattended and another because no one knew a child had wandered several blocks away from the school. Our STARS rating system does not take into account the work and cost needed to adequately support families with trauma, living through drug addiction, poverty, etc. A program can have 5-STARS but still be unprepared to work with the 70% of young Burlington children who come from homes making below 200% of the federal poverty level. Most, if not all, highly rated programs struggle acutely with these challenges.

2) Centers have real trouble retaining teachers, especially high quality teachers, and some centers have yearly turnover rates as high as 50%. That’s essentially every teacher leaving ever 2 years. Not only do centers struggle to build consistent teaching teams and a clear set of values and expectations, but children who see staff high turnover suffer academically. For children who already come from families where adults are constantly coming into and out of their lives, this can be incredibly stressful and triggering.

3) The typical early childhood educator works two jobs, because most of the best private early childhood educators in the city are paid less than $16 an hour, or $33,000 a year, while the city’s 2018 livable wage with health benefits is only a few thousand dollars less, at $29,619 a year, while neither come close to covering Burlington’s high costs of living. Teachers end up coming to school tired and short-tempered, either because they are burnt out from being tired/sick from overworking, stressed financially, or both. Public schools are incredibly attractive alternatives: while teachers in public schools put in more hours of work during the week, they are compensated, with the help of strong unions, upwards of 50%-70% more than private preschool teachers and early educators, to say nothing of the myriad vacations, health benefits, CTO time, tax breaks, loan forgiveness programs, and secondary education/professional development benefits. When even the Bagel Market on Shelburne Road offers a starting salary of $15 an hour, it’s hard to feel like your community values your work.

4) Most centers also have trouble retaining substitute teachers for when staff are sick, which is why one highly rated center last year had to close their doors for several days at a time due to lack of staff. Imagine what this does to overburdened staff, who may not use sick time even when they should so as to not burden their center. It happens a lot more than you think.

5) Schools often lack the necessary professional development/trainings to prepare teachers to work with children with high levels of stress and trauma due to generational poverty, drug addiction, learning delays, and English Language Learners. My school regularly enrolls ‘problem children’ from other highly rated centers in the area. These centers, which as our mayor will tell you, are a business that should make money, do not have the capacity to deal with these children (often class size-ratios, 8:1 children to teachers, are too high to effectively manage, never mind teach, but that’s the only way to try to break even as a business!) and often parents say they and their children feel much more respected and valued over their previous center.

6) School are ill-funded.  If not for the United Way, my own center would be tens of thousands of dollars in the red every year, just to cover operating expenses. Meanwhile, our executive director, with a masters’ degree and over two decades of experience, makes $45,000 a year. Neither staff nor lower-middle class and working class families win in this system.

7) To reiterate, early education will always be, and should be, a money losing business! It’s a terrible business to get in to because our community has recognized that education from K-12 is not a money-making business but rather a public good. I wish Mayor Weinberger agreed.

8) No centers really want to expand. It’s hard enough to make ends meet, keep children safe, hire competent staff, all the while according to the governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission,  a high-quailty toddler/infant slot costs over $35,000 a year. In most centers, the preschool classrooms ends up subsidizing infant and toddler classrooms, all of which are subsidized by charity, small grants, families (who can’t afford it), and most importantly ridiculously low paid teachers and staff.
Adding money to the system right now will be like building a new bedroom on a burning house. Let’s correct the problems current centers face BEFORE we add more capacity.