Chris Schulz Published

Statewide Apprenticeship Program Helps Child Care Providers, But Issues Remain

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A state apprenticeship program helps train child care workers, but broader issues across the industry impact both families and providers.

West Virginia is facing a shortage of child care providers. But a program developed by the state, West Virginia University and other partners is training the industry’s workforce.

In the latest entry of “Now What? A Series on Parenting,” Chris Schulz talks with Kerri Carte, assistant director for WVU Extension’s Family and Community Development unit, about the Apprenticeship for Child Development Specialists (ACDS) and broader issues in the child care industry.

The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Schulz: Can you explain to me what adequate child care is? What is the standard that we’re working towards when you’re training these professionals?

Carte: The standard is to have educated, well-informed child care providers. They need to have a good, basic understanding of child development, of all the domains such as social-emotional development, motor development, cognitive development, all of those. But then they also have to have the tools of how to manage children appropriately, as well as how to manage themselves. It’s not like you’re caring for your own child personally. It’s a professional position, we’re not babysitters. They have to be able to conduct themselves professionally, and do what’s appropriate within a classroom. 

The standards that we’re working towards are established by West Virginia. It’s the West Virginia core knowledge and competencies for early childhood. Those are set down by West Virginia’s DHHR, Department of Health and Human Resources. But they also come down from much higher. There’s national standards set by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. And then there’s even higher standards of Head Start and preschool that are all national standards, but our program specifically is working towards the West Virginia, core knowledge and competencies. 

Schulz: Why is having a professional in the room with these children so important? 

Carte: One of the big things that we teach our child care providers is how to look for milestones. Every child should develop in a certain pattern. Not every child reaches every milestone at the same time, but they should develop. For instance, you know a child will start rolling over first, and then they might start pushing up, and then they start to crawl, eventually leading to walking. And there are certain time frames when these things should occur. When they don’t occur in the right time frame, or if a child is not progressing, we call those red flags.

Child care providers are trained to notice those red flags. If they notice that a child is not pushing up, and they definitely have reached that limit of where they should be, they can alert the family and say, “You might want to go speak to your pediatrician and talk to him about this.” It allows us to catch any kind of developmental delays very early. That is critical in early childhood because anytime you can catch an issue really early, you have a much better chance of working with the child, working with the family and correcting those issues. But the other half of that is to know what’s appropriate to handle children: how they should be fed, how they should be put to sleep. What people do in their own homes is their own business, but in child care you put a child to sleep in a crib, there’s not allowed to be any kind of stuffed animals or any kind of suffocation factors in it. They learn all of those safety things, and how to appropriately handle a child so that they can develop appropriately.

Schulz: Where do we stand with child care and the level of professional availability for child care in West Virginia?

Carte: In my opinion, we’re in a crisis. We have child cares that are shutting down, the ones that are open have wait lists that are miles long. I’ll give you an example. Recently in Charleston, we had two well-established restaurants shut down very close together, tons of press on that. It was all over Facebook, I was scrolling. It was on the news and the newspapers. But at that same time, we had a child care center shut down that served 100 children. There was one newspaper article that I saw on that.

I think some of the people in the public think we’re crying wolf, but we’re really not. There are not enough child care providers in this state. And I’m in Charleston, there are more providers here in Charleston than in a lot of other places. We have counties that don’t have licensed child care providers. There’s not a provider in Wirt County. There are other counties that there are maybe one or two, and people don’t realize how impactful that is. People cannot be productive citizens, go to work, earn income, help our whole economy, if you don’t have somewhere safe and good to put your child. You don’t have anywhere to send your child because there’s nobody there. One-hundred families were impacted by that closure, and that’s critical to those people’s livelihoods. I don’t think the public is aware of how critical this is to our growth. 

Schulz: What are the barriers to adequate care? 

Carte: There is a ton of overhead in early childhood, that is where the challenge is. You go to elementary schools, you can have one person for 20 plus children. When you’re caring for infants, the ratio is much smaller. One person can only care for a handful of children in order for it to be safe and productive. We want that. We don’t want one person caring for 20 infants, they would never see to their needs. But you start adding all of those various staff in, and it becomes extremely expensive. That is the biggest challenge that child care providers are facing.

Some of them are just making minimum wage or just above. You can go to fast food restaurants or some of the big box stores and get paid more, because those people are in a retail business and their goal is to make money. But a lot of our child care providers, a lot of them are nonprofit. There are some that are for-profit, but it is so expensive to hire all the employees. Yet they can’t pay them very much because their sole income is the tuition that the families pay for that child. It is so expensive already for families that families can’t afford to pay any more. So owners of child care centers are always walking this fine line between not raising tuition too much where their families can’t afford it and yet being able to charge enough that they can pay their staff a living wage. And there’s a gap between those two that will probably never be reached. 

The other flip side of that is we look at our public education, that’s all subsidized by taxes, county levies, federal funding, state funding, all of that is what is backed, it’s all supported. There is very, very little support going to early childhood. Some of our most neediest families, yes, can get some child care assistance through the resource and referral networks. But it’s peanuts in comparison to what we spend in public education. We need to have the same level of quality coming from that early childhood that we do in our public education system. But yet our society is saying, “Well, you do it on your own, we’re not going to fund it and support it.” And it’s impossible. It will never work.

I hate to keep saying that, because it sounds like all early childhood wants is their handout and money, but if they want quality child care, we’ve got to invest in that. There used to be some employers that would do employee-based child care. At least they had the support of an employer that was backing some of that. There are a few employers like WVU [who] provide some assistance for their employees with child care, trying to help a little bit with some subsidies, like a benefit, if you will, and they’ll help trying to contribute to some of that, but it’s few and far between. Most families are out there on their own, barely scraping by to make it work. And then they’re trying to come up with hundreds of dollars a month to pay tuition. And on the flip side, you have the child care centers that are doing the same thing. They’re trying to make their budgets match without breaking the bank of their families, and the gap is too wide. They cannot bridge it.

Schulz: The Apprenticeship for Child Development Specialists program – how is that addressing these issues that we’ve been discussing?

Carte: The apprenticeship program is just like plumbers, pipe fitters, all of that. We provide classroom education, they do on the job training. Once they go through the apprenticeship program, they become journeymen, all through the U.S. Department of Labor. So it’s just like all the other skilled laborers, if you will, that go through the process. What part that I play in that program is, well, a couple parts. I do a lot of their curriculum development, but I also do manage the program in Kanawha County, and I teach for them as well. 

West Virginia is the only state that has an apprenticeship program for child development specialists. There are other states that have looked into it, but nobody’s able to implement it. That is one of the great things that our state has done. DHHR has backed the apprenticeship program. They provide funding for it, which is a great thing. Our goal is to try to educate these child care providers so that they can provide the best absolute quality of early childhood education that we can, that they can. It’s a four-semester program. Once they get done, they graduate, they become journeymen. And then they are more knowledgeable, they’re better trained, and a lot of our students will go on and seek higher education with the credits they earn. We have reciprocity with several colleges and universities across the state, they can turn it into nine or 12 credit hours of college because we cover so many core concepts.

Schulz: They must already be employed, or do you all help them find a position so that they can work on this simultaneously?

Carte: They must be employed, because it is an apprenticeship program. It is technically an employer-sponsored program. So just like plumbers or pipefitters, you must get a job first and then they will train you as you go and do an apprenticeship program. What’s different between the child care program and the other apprenticeship programs is that there’s apprenticeship programs for, like I said, plumbers, pipefitters, carpenters, all of that, [which] have been established for years and years and years. It’s built into that industry, that they provide support, finances to back and pay the education and pay to get through. That comes through employers. The child care program is not set up like that. It is backed and paid for by DHHR. So although it is employer sponsored, the employer doesn’t have to pay money for it. But they do have to be employed because it is through the employer that they get the apprenticeship program, because they have to do the on-the-job training. 

And in order to do that for child care providers, that’s back in their classroom. Let’s say we’re talking about literacy and that’s what we’re teaching that week. Their homework is to do a literacy activity in their classroom with their children, with the skills and the things that we have talked about in that class. That’s how they practice the skills that they’ve learned in that class. They put it right back into their classroom, do the activity. Then the next week, say we talk about motor development or fine development, they have to go back into the classroom the following week, and they do that activity with the children. That’s why they have to be employed, they have to be able to practice and get that on-the-job experience and training, but then also it is through the U.S. Department of Labor, and they require it to be employer based, so you must already be employed. Now, if you lose your job mid-semester, for whatever reasons, like, say your child care center closes, we work with that student. They are allowed to finish out that semester. It’s not an automatic drop out. They are allowed to complete that semester, but then they must be employed in another child care setting before they can begin the next semester of the curriculum.

Schulz: So what do you think is the benefit of having this be a statewide program? 

Carte: It comes into play when we talk about ethics. Communities are small, you might know a lot about this family or not as much and you know a lot about family ties. So we talk about that. We’re able to target it to those more rural environments. They may not have access to libraries or museums or external things. We adapted to make it appropriate for rural environments, for those areas that need it. The curriculum is very flexible, and we’re able to take advantage of some of those things if, you know, if the community can provide it. And if not, then we look at other options for communities, then we present both options to the child care providers.

Schulz: Is there anything that you would like to highlight or anything that I haven’t given you the opportunity to discuss with me today?

Carte: I guess I want to briefly tell you my own story [so] that you understand where my passion comes from. My children are grown, but 22 years ago, I was working with WVU. I was considered a professional, I had a faculty appointment. But I was a single parent and I struggled to find child care that I could afford, that I knew was quality at the time. I paid my mortgage and my child care providers in that order, and then everybody else got in line and took a number. That’s when I realized that we’ve got an issue. That was 20 to 24 years ago and the needle hasn’t moved much, families are still in that position. We’ve got to do something about that. Like I said, I had a very living salary, a very workable salary. A lot of our families don’t have that, and they’re struggling. And I do think we need to work on that as a state. 

The other thing I want to talk about real briefly is that the curriculum that we provide is not one and done. I think one of the things that makes this program wonderful is that we are constantly going back to that curriculum and updating it, making corrections, fine tuning it, and adding new information that’s needed. Right now, the Extension Services [are] working to update the whole entire fourth semester with a lot more about behavior plans and behaviors, because that’s becoming a big issue in early childhood. We’ve got some children that are exhibiting behaviors that are really challenging due to trauma and all kinds of issues. So we are constantly revisiting this curriculum to update it and improve it. 

The final thing I would like to say is that WVU doesn’t “own” this program. The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) does it through funding, and it runs through River Valley Child Development Services. So WVU is partnering with the River Valley organization that runs ACDS to help them with curriculum and instruction. So although we are a big factor as far as the curriculum and the education, the ACDS program is run by River Valley. That is an independent organization from WVU. It’s a great partnership. It really has helped, because River Valley does not have the expertise and the technicality within their staff to do all of this curriculum development. And of course as WVU employees we do, so it’s been a wonderful partnership.

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