Top quality childcare doesn’t come cheap

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Children at Our Neighborhood Child Development Center spend hours outdoors each day, which owner Jennifer McDonald said is essential to their growth. Photo: Elli Williams Children at Our Neighborhood Child Development Center spend hours outdoors each day, which owner Jennifer McDonald said is essential to their growth. Photo: Elli Williams

Charlottesville is home to a broad spectrum of childcare providers, from nanny-shares and under-the- table babysitters to corporate-owned centers that cost as much as college tuition. Parents are faced with tough decisions before even giving birth, and families everywhere have the same question: Why is childcare so expensive?

Tuition for top-notch centers in Charlottesville can run as high as $14,000 a year —comparable to Massachusetts, the state with the nation’s highest average childcare costs. Providers and parents will agree that every child deserves quality care. But the gap between the top tier and the safety net, both in terms of quality and price, is dramatic. The bottom line is you get what you pay for, and for the most expensive childcare, what you’re paying for is a low ratio of kids to educated, highly paid staff.

First-time mother Amanda Sovik-Johnston learned the hard way to hang on for dear life to trustworthy caregivers.

“When you find someone you like and trust, you’ve got to do everything you can to keep them happy,” she said. Sovik-Johnston now sends her son to a shared home care provider after a frustrating nanny experience.

Parents want as much one-on-one attention for their kids as possible, from committed staff with experience and education, but some centers retain employees better than others. Many of the centers that target the lower income brackets are forced to pay lower salaries, causing a high turnover rate and less consistency for kids.

Of the 60-plus childcare centers in Charlottesville, only three are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the world’s largest organization working on behalf of children with more than 300 state and local affiliates. Two of those NAEYC accredited providers are the corporate-run childcare centers for University of Virginia faculty, staff, students, and medical personnel.

Malcolm W. Cole Child Care Center, the daycare for families employed by the UVA Health System, is accredited by NAEYC and is one of the most expensive options in the area at about $12,000 per year for infants. It’s managed by Bright Horizons Family Solutions, the largest provider of employer-sponsored childcare, and its reputation has made it a top choice for the UVA employees who can afford the cost and the wait.

The daycare uses a priority ranking system, with Medical Center employees who provide direct patient care at the top, followed by other staff, and finally other workers including University faculty, staff, and research professionals.

Katie Newell Leach has one young daughter, and went on the Malcolm Cole waiting list the day she found out she was pregnant in 2011. She said she never looked into other childcare options, and though her husband is a UVA Medical Center resident, the wait was still nearly a year.

“We heard nothing but good things about it from other parents, so there wasn’t really a question for us,” she said.

Jennifer McDonald, who has a bachelor’s degree in early childhood development, has worked in several cities, including New York and Atlanta, and saw a need here for higher quality care. Last September she opened Our Neighborhood Child Development Center, a privately owned facility for infants and toddlers that serves the high end of the market, including some UVA families who prefer it to the University’s options.

“I can’t help everyone and fix everything—we’re only licensed for 43 children,” McDonald said. “But I want to set a standard that parents can see and demand from other places.”

McDonald is outspoken about the fact that not all childcare is created equal. Our Neighborhood operates on a system called continuity of care, which provides stability and consistency for the kids, which McDonald said is essential during those first few years. Most daycare centers move children to the toddler room when they hit 16 months, which can be detrimental if the child doesn’t know anybody or go through any sort of transitional period. So rather than abruptly moving one or two kids at a time, a group and its teacher will spend weeks visiting the new classroom, talk about the upcoming changes, and ultimately move together.

But providing staff who are both qualified and willing to make long-term commitments is one of the biggest challenges McDonald faces. Daycare centers often hire uneducated staff who are looking for temporary work, but McDonald hires teachers —preferably with bachelor’s or even master’s degrees in a child-related field—who demand salaries higher than a high school graduate who enjoys working with kids.

As a member of the Virginia Association for Early Childhood Education, who plays an active role in the local childcare community, McDonald said she has been appalled by practices she’s witnessed at different centers, from questionable ratios to a complete disregard for physical affection.

“I’ve toured places where crying children are being rocked in cribs, not touched at all,” she said. “That’s not comforting.”

Some parents want even more nurturing and one-on-one attention, but they have to be willing to pay for the low ratios.

Mozhdeh Monjezi’s Gentle Care home center has been thriving since 2005, and won’t have any openings until September 2013. She employs two full-time care providers, prepares fresh, homemade meals and snacks for the kids each day, and treats each child like her own.

It’s 1:30pm, and Monjezi’s basement is quiet. The blinds are closed, lights are off, and gentle, soothing music lulls kids to sleep. Monjezi and her staff are able to take care of tasks like wiping down countertops and taking out the lunch trash, and they may even get a few minutes for a deep breath and a quick bite.

But when a whimper comes from the next room, a caregiver drops what she’s doing and within seconds is on the floor, holding and cooing at a drowsy but distraught looking 1-year-old boy. He’s been struggling at naptime lately, but immediately relaxes in the arms of his teacher.

Monjezi’s primary goal is to provide a nurturing, home-like atmosphere for the kids. A mother wouldn’t ignore or harshly shush her crying baby, she said, and neither should a childcare provider.

When Mozhdeh Monjezi came to Charlottesville from Iran nine years ago, she took a job as a teacher at a local daycare center. As the second of six children, Monjezi spent most of her life surrounded by kids, and went on to study child development in college. She had no doubt that working with young children was her calling, but after a few months she began seeing practices she didn’t agree with, and the day she watched a caregiver wave her hand at a crying baby and say “Oh, he’ll be fine,” she took matters into her own hands.

“I knew I wasn’t going back,” she said. “I knew then that I wanted to be in charge.”

So with a vision of a center that reflected the nurturing environment her own stay-at-home mother created for her and her siblings, Monjezi and her husband finished the basement of their new home and transformed it into a home care center for infants and toddlers.

But it all comes with a cost. Parents sending their kids to Gentle Care fork out $55 per day for part-time care, or $248 per week for full-time—about $13,000 per year.

The tuition covers Monjezi’s food and supplies, as well as licensing and training expenses. But she said she and her husband don’t need the extra money, and her top priority is taking care of her staff.

“Even though they love working with children, they have to make money too,” she said.

Even families who can afford and are willing to pay the highest rates around for childcare have their limits. With combined salaries, Katie Newell Leach said the cost of Malcolm Cole was both manageable and absolutely worth it, but when their second child comes along next year, she’ll likely stay home with both kids. Her daughter thrived at the center and misses the socialization, she said, but the cost of enrolling two in daycare would be too high.

“Working as a teacher and paying double childcare just wouldn’t be worth it,” she said.

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