Striving to Be a School of Excellence: Profit vs. Non-Profit
During the process of opening The Nest, one question that was asked more often than just about any other was, “Why do you want to operate as a non-profit?” I’ve always struggled with the answer. While Mandy, Kristi and I were planning and dreaming about the school, we discussed this topic many times. We went back and forth regarding what path to take and trying to decide what was best for us personally and for the school. Ultimately, even though opening as a for-profit corporation would have been easier in some ways, we knew that the school had to be a non-profit organization.
So…why? Why did we decide to open The Nest as a non-profit? The passionate, idealistic answer – and really the only answer – is that we want to change the face of early childhood education and specifically that segment which is coined “day care.” It may seem as if we have set ourselves up for a big disappointment. Challenging the status quo is not an easy road. However, here we are, with our dreams, passions and a force of will, taking a step forward. I would like to point out that merely the fact that we chose to be a non-profit doesn’t necessarily make us any more capable of making big changes. Also, I don’t intend to imply that for-profit centers cannot be caring and wonderful. Our decision to be a non-profit was based on the desire to implement a change in the way people think of full-day child care and take the focus of “day care” off of the money and the profit and, instead, to put it where it rightfully belongs – on the children, educators, and families.
In Reggio Emilia, the infant/toddler centers and preschools are, for the most part, full-day childcare centers meant to serve working families. They are governmentally subsidized, and tuition is based on family income. The schools prioritize enrollment of those children who most need their services, including low income families and children with “special rights” (the term used in Reggio in place of the more common term “special needs”). The teachers of young children are viewed and treated within society as professional educators and, as such, go through an extensive amount of training and mentoring. A minimum amount of education and experience is a basic condition of employment in a preschool or infant/toddler center in Reggio. Teachers must also be prepared to undergo extensive and ongoing professional development.
As I see it, this is the way it should be everywhere for all children. After all, not only are these centers taking care of the basic needs of the children and providing a loving and safe environment while parents are at work, but they are also charged with the education of the children in the precious first years of life. There is overwhelming evidence supporting research regarding the vast amount of learning and physical and brain development that happens in children from birth to 3 years. At no other time in life does the brain develop as rapidly and adapt to environments so quickly. In addition, research supports the notion that if children do not develop problem solving and critical thinking skills by age 8 it becomes much more difficult to develop such skills. There is also a mountain of research that young children learn most effectively through play, more specifically, imaginative play. Yet, the focus on academics, testing and assessment is being forcefully pushed into preschools.
We frequently hear the pandering in our society that “children are our future!” But if this is indeed the case, why are so little resources devoted to the care and education of very young children? Without exception, the research supports the value of high-quality early care and education. This kind of care is both a need of the majority of parents and a benefit to children. Yet the average salary for a person working in a childcare center in the United States is dismal. According to an article entitled “The Lowly Child-Care Worker” in the January 5, 2011 issue of The Wall Street Journal:
Child-care center directors’ median annual pay is only $34,233, according to Payscale.com, and child-care workers themselves make only $23,437, barely exceeding the federal poverty threshold for a family of four. The mean hourly wage for child-care workers is $9.73 an hour, falling short of coatroom attendants and short-order cooks, and barely outpacing dishwashers and burger flippers, say child-care advocacy groups such as the Center for the Child care Workforce.
Because of the low wages and low esteem given the profession, childcare employees are often hired with little or no education and virtually no experience in the care of young children.
The situation outlined above sounds pretty grim; in fact, it is and has been for a long time. However, there are steps being taken to improve the quality of centers and their employees. Starting in December 2012, Georgia’s childcare licensing agency (Bright from the Start) will apply new regulations for education and experience for directors and teachers. The minimum education for a lead teacher in a childcare center will be a “Childcare Development Associate” (CDA) that is generally a six month program of study. Even with an increase in education, however, there will not be an automatic salary increase for the vast majority of childcare teachers.
At The Nest we do better than average in terms of teacher preparedness. The professional development that we participate in at The Nest far exceeds that which is required by the state of Georgia. While we strive to pay well, salaries at The Nest are better than average for the industry in Georgia, but do not exceed the national averages. Certainly, the salaries of our teachers are much lower than the average for education professionals overall. To demonstrate, we have 18 children paying full tuition. Tuition is roughly $1000 per month and salaries are roughly 85% of income. There are a total of 7 employees. By doing some simple math you can get an idea of how well (or not) we are able to compensate our teachers for the exceptional daily care and education that they provide to the children at The Nest.
Of course, on the flip side, we are certainly aware that $1000 per month is a lot of money for almost any family. It’s a mortgage payment or a month or two of groceries. For some families, it is their entire net pay for the month. I’m not sure what percentage of the population of Southeast Atlanta are able to afford $1000 a month tuition for child care, but the average family income in our 30316 zip code is approximately $33,000. Almost without exception, high-quality childcare is only available to those families which can afford it. While there are a few government-funded programs to offset the cost of childcare, these are usually reserved for those most in need.
What happens then for the “average” family in our community? In those families in which parents work full-time, children are often sent to a childcare program that complies with minimum Georgia licensing standards. In Georgia, this is a program in which a single teacher (who might be 18 years of age, inexperienced in caring for young children, and making minimum wage) cares for 6 infants. No one person can do more with six infants in her care than meet the minimal “custodial needs” of individual children. It is an unacceptable situation for our babies and it is driven by money.
These points underscore a primary reason why The Nest operates as a non-profit. Because of our 501(c)3 status, we more often are eligible for grants which can help fund our program. Such grants might provide us with money to purchase needed equipment or materials, thereby saving money that we can re-invest in our employees to improve their quality of lives. We are also hopeful that grant monies might be available to offer scholarships for families who otherwise could not afford to send their children to a program like The Nest.
What are the next steps? The first step is to make The Nest the absolute best example of a “new model” of childcare and education for young children. We will gradually increase the size of our school to serve more families. In the next 2-5 years our goal is to serve between 40-60 children up to age 5. We will also make simple yet profound efforts to improve the professionalism of teaching very young children. For example, we will make every attempt to eliminate the term “daycare” from our vocabulary. As our mentor Margie Cooper of Inspired Practices in Early Education likes to say, “We are not taking care of days. We are caring for children.” We will strive to bring the children to the forefront of the educational discussion. While we (collectively as a school) cannot be perfect, we will always aspire to be so.
We will continue our professional development and share our work with others through educator exchange days and conferences. The schools of Project Infinity have been asked to develop presentations for the NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) Conference, which will be held in Atlanta in November 2012. In addition, in advance of the NAEYC conference, we hope to participate in a professional development initiative for educators from around the United States who are interested in seeing our unique interpretation of what it means to be inspired by the schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy. If chosen for this initiative, we would be excited and honored to host upwards of 200 educators who would be touring our school.
All educators at The Nest are expected to articulate their work in a way that can be shared. Whether it be through presentations, giving visibility to children’s work in the school, our blog, or a training environment, we think that the most meaningful way that we can effect change is to share the work that we are doing with other educators in the field. We hope to gradually broaden the field of educators that we touch to include those that work in centers that may have never heard of the “Reggio Approach” or never dreamed of pushing back at the status quo of early childhood education in the United States. Because we are a nonprofit organization, we are not focused on making money. We are instead motivated by an absolute desire to see early childhood care and education constantly improve, not only at The Nest, but throughout our community and beyond.
These goals will keep up busy for quite a while, but there are bigger ideas and dreams on the horizon which we envision will continue to improve the quality of care for more and more of Georgia’s children. We’ll keep you posted as these dreams begin to become a reality!
If you would like to see The Nest Nursery School continue its mission to provide the best possible childcare to the families whom we serve, and to improve the overall quality of care and education for all young children, please consider making a tax-deductable donation to the school. With your generous support the possibilities are endless!