CARTERVILLE — Lori Longueville, director of Child Care Resource and Referral at John A. Logan College, says the child care industry is facing a crisis: Qualified teachers are needed for early childhood classrooms.
In 2019, John A. Logan, Rend Lake, Shawnee Community, Southeastern Illinois and Kaskaskia colleges graduated a total of 28 students combined from their early childhood education programs. On Aug. 1, Southern Illinois had openings for 79 teacher and assistant teacher positions.
Longueville said the issue is complicated.
“It was kind of the perfect storm," she said. "All these things came together at once."
Fewer college students are enrolling in early childhood programs, so there are fewer graduates.
The state board of education changed the minimum requirements for a substitute teacher license for kindergarten through 12th grades to address the shortage of qualified substitute teachers. The new qualifications allow those with an associate degree to substitute. Longueville said some districts pay $100 per day.
Owners of three early learning centers talked about their experiences.
The three centers are recognized by ExceleRate Illinois, a statewide quality recognition and improvement system designed to make continuous quality improvement an everyday priority among early learning providers.
The program establishes standards for helping infants, toddlers and preschool-age children develop intellectually, physically, socially and emotionally. It provides a framework for early learning professionals to identify opportunities for improvement, increase their skills and take steps to make positive changes.
Robin Moore, of Robin’s Nest Early Learning Center in Carterville, Marion and soon in Carbondale, has 25 years in the child care business. Robin’s Nest is an ExceleRate Illinois gold center. The centers are licensed for 700 children (in the two centers).
Bonnie Brackett owns a Marion-based early learning center. It also is ExceleRate Illinois gold. Her center is licensed for 94 children.
Marci Glover owns The Busy Bee Learning Center in Christopher. The Busy Bee is an ExceleRate Illinois silver center. She is licensed for 80 children.
“It’s a brave new world. It used to be that would run an ad in The Southern and get multiple qualified individuals for the position,” Brackett said. “Over the last two years, I can advertise for weeks and weeks, get 15 applicants and none of them are teacher-qualified.”
“We’re currently employing 92 people. I’m constantly hiring. I run an ad every day,” Moore said, adding that it is hard to find staff — qualified, dependable staff.
She gets people who think working at the center is just playing with children. “That’s not what we’re about,” she said.
The owners all stressed that they are talking about classrooms and teachers, not just playing with children. They are talking about curriculum and creating lesson plans with age-appropriate learning activities.
“Most people come to us through word of mouth, but the clientele we see are interested in what their child is learning," Glover said, adding that people are surprised because they did not know the center has a curriculum.
Moore keeps about nine staff members more than she needs to operate the center just to be able to maintain state staffing ratio requirements.
“People get sick, but the state doesn’t care. We have to maintain that ratio,” Moore said. “In order for us to be able to do that, we keep extra staff, so I’m always OK.“
She added that it is harder to find people today who can meet the minimum requirements for early childhood teachers. Because the early learning centers cannot compensate at the same rates as school districts, teachers leave for the school districts.
“I just lost a teacher for a hospital job," Moore said. "They are now hiring for $13 an hour. The only way we can compete is by raising rates on parents."
She doesn’t want to do that.
Brackett said the staffing crisis has created a financial crisis. "Any center you talk to will tell you they have a long waiting list, but I can’t enroll children without staff. With fewer children enrolled, I can’t pay higher wages to complete with places like BCBS. It’s a huge financial burden for those of us who privately own their center,” she said.
Glover said the rate of compensation for those families who receive child care assistance also needs some attention. Centers are compensated based on a child’s attendance. Glover thinks they could create a better formula based on the number of spots in the center or the number of children per month.
They are concerned about the increasing minimum wage and its effects on parents.
“We raised our rates $1 in August. I don’t know how much farther we could go,” Glover said.
As minimum wage increases, Moore will have to raise enrollment costs. Raising rates may force more people into state assistance.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” she said. “If something isn’t done, we are going to see many more schools close. And it’s going to put a big hardship on our families, our communities and our state. If parents don’t have childcare, they cannot go to work. It’s a trickle-down effect.”
Moore operates the largest infant and toddler center in the state, and they are still full. In Carterville, Robin’s Nest provides care for 36 infants and 45 toddlers. Robin’s Nest has a waiting list of more than 40 in Carterville and 30 in Marion.
“We turn away infants every week. Franklin County doesn’t have many infant spots,” Glover said.
None of the owners believe DCFS should lower their requirements or relax their standards, but they need another option. Brackett, who has a wait list of 75 children, said change is happening too slowly. The owners would like to see a “grow your own” type of program, similar to the Illinois State Board of Education does for K-12 teachers.
Bracket said they also need some kind of emergency pathway to licensure, too, to get teachers in the classroom quickly to address current issues.
Glover wants that to be a way to quickly get assistant teachers qualified as classroom teachers.
They also want reimbursement rates looked at by the state.
“If they kept up with inflation, we would be able to compete with other businesses,” Brackett said.
Moore would like students to be able to work at a center for their student teaching.
“We need to work together if we are going to make a difference in early childhood
“Let’s remember why we do what we do. This is probably the most important job on the planet. We are shaping the future,” Bracket said. “I don’t want them to forget how important they are and what they do.”
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