A Bridge to Success: Pre-K in St. Johnsbury

A Bridge to Success: Pre-K in St. Johnsbury

Michelle Fox is the Early Education Coordinator for the St. Johnsbury School District. Prior to this position, she spent 16 years working in the mental health field in a variety of capacities. A lifetime resident of Vermont, she lives in St. Johnsbury with her two children, Patrick (14) and Ashley (13).

There’s a common saying that goes, “It takes a big heart to shape growing minds” and, in St. Johnsbury, we are showing just how big a heart can be.

Like many other places in Vermont, St. Johnsbury is struggling with opiate addiction and poverty. More than thirty-five percent of Caledonia County families live under 200% of the poverty line, and St. Jay’s substance abuse program, BAART, has seen the number of clients for drug addiction treatment programs increase from 75 to 248 in a little over a year. What’s even more alarming is that 111 of those 248 individuals have children under the age of 7.

Quality early experiences are critical to ensure that children have a strong start in life. We wanted to give all of the children in the St. Johnsbury School District an opportunity to succeed regardless of their home life. Because 90% of the brain is developed by age 5, that meant providing the children with quality experiences before they entered kindergarten.

In October of 2013, the district partnered with private child care centers to form the St. Johnsbury Early Education Collaborative (EEC). Our focus has been on developing a network of pre-K programs in our community. When we began, we had 2 part-time classrooms in the school and a partnership with one private center, serving a total of 75 children. With the implementation of Act 166, which provides 10 hours a week of free pre-K to all three-, four- and five-year-olds in Vermont, we were able to expand. Now, the EEC is comprised of teachers from eight child care centers serving 104 pre-K children. We hope to be able to partner with home providers in the future.

The EEC’s goal is to align curriculum for all early childhood centers; strengthen the transition between early childhood programs and the St. Johnsbury School; develop early intervention programs for children who need them and their parents; and increase parent, family and community support for early care and learning. Here’s how we’re working to achieve these goals.

Providing professional development and support to pre-K staff

Ensuring quality early experiences for all children starts with giving our pre-K staff the professional development, support and resources necessary to offer such experiences. We do this in a number of ways:

  1. The EEC meets monthly to discuss the needs in the school and community and to plan trainings centered around those needs. Last fall, we held a training on how to help children manage their emotions through art, and we recently planned a training on self-care to ensure that teachers know how to take care of themselves so they can be better teachers for the children.
  2. With support from various grants, we have been able to establish a common Second Step social-emotional development curriculum, which is designed to teach self-regulation and executive-function skills that help children pay attention, remember directions and control their behavior.
  3. With additional grant funding, we have also trained all staff on conscious discipline and purchased training books for all centers. “Conscious discipline addresses children’s needs to appropriately handle stress and frustration,” said Stevi Jackson, early education professional development and program coordinator. “In the process, it builds a sense of empathy and community and helps the teachers remain composed when they’re teaching children to remain composed.”
  4. We are supporting nine pre-K teachers with a grant-funded mentor as they work toward earning permanent licensure.

Providing increased individual supports for students

The EEC has helped us increase support for our children. Betsy Bailey, director and owner of Little Dippers Doodle Children’s Center, said, “At our last EEC meeting, we talked about a child who had been bumped around due to severe behavior issues and which program would be able to support that child and to support the family. When we have children who need extra help and extra support in the classroom, it’s been easy to get that extra support in the classroom through St. Johnsbury School with small group paraeducators, allowing us to have three teachers in a classroom instead of only two.”

Children don’t always stay in one program. If they happen to move from one center to another, through the EEC, programs are able to talk to each other to say “this is what worked really well for this child and this didn’t work so well.”

Engaging families and the community

Our teachers are more likely to get through to the children if they’re able to get through to the parents. To encourage a sense of community, we held a Harvest Dinner last fall. The children in each of our eight centers learned a song, which they then performed in front of an audience of 350 parents and family members.

Supporting the children’s transition to kindergarten

Each of our centers is really focused on helping children adapt to transitions, whether it’s getting ready to go outside to play, moving from classroom to classroom or entering a new school. We’re working hard to build a solid bridge from preschool to kindergarten through a few ways:

  1. When students enter kindergarten, they’ve all been learning the same Second Step curriculum, which is continued in school through 5th grade. Also, all of the teachers from pre-K through 8th grade have learned the Conscious Discipline curriculum and so this language and philosophy follows the kids through their education, making it a much more seamless transition.
  2. Last spring, we held our first Kindergarten Transition Day. A school bus picked up children from each center and brought them to the school so they could experience a 2-hour kindergarten day.
  3. There’s a real collaboration between the pre-K programs and the school. Kindergarten teachers have visited pre-K programs to observe children to see what in the environment works for them and we’ve had pre-K teachers come into the kindergarten classroom to help children transition.

Universal pre-K through Act 166 has been beneficial for our children and families. Erika Lanclot, a parent of a child in the universal pre-K program at Little Dippers Doodle, said, “I get laid off in the winter so I’m not eligible for subsidy. I was going to pull Kelly out of the center for the winter and then the teacher told me he could get free preschool 3 mornings each week. We love it. He loves it. He listens better. He gets structure here.”

Act 166 has also helped our teachers. “The partnership with St. Johnsbury has definitely helped support us so that we can afford to maintain high-quality care,” said Bailey, before adding,“I have an amazing staff. They’re so well-rounded and dedicated and they treat the children like their own. But we can’t afford benefits. And we need more money into direct service to help us support children from opiate-addicted parents, to help us support their families.”

Bailey also said that for universal pre-K to truly be effective, the state needs to offer as much as 20 hours a week. “You’re throwing a kid into a program for two hours a day and you’re spending so much of that time eating a snack or transitioning into and out of the classroom,” Bailey said. “As soon as the child gets settled into the classroom, it’s time to leave. You need more time for teachers to work with the children. Otherwise, it’s disruptive for the kids and for the families.”

The EEC still has much work to do to ensure that all St. Johnsbury children are given an opportunity to succeed, but it’s clear from talking with teachers and families, and by seeing the progress we’ve made in less than 3 years, that we’re well on our way.

The Price We Pay for High-Quality Child Care

The Price We Pay for High-Quality Child Care

In its report to the Administration and Legislature, Vermont’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Financing High Quality, Affordable Child Care emphasized the fact that high-quality child care is expensive for both parents and providers. In Vermont, too many families are living paycheck-to-paycheck while the average child care provider makes less than a livable wage.

These child care challenges are a problem statewide and, although what follows are just two perspectives—that of Tracy Patnoe, owner and director of Mud City Kids Child Care Center in Morrisville, VT; and Stephanie Tetreault, mother of two boys enrolled in Mud City Kids—they represent the stories of thousands upon thousands of Vermonters who struggle every day to ensure that all Vermont children have a strong start.

The Price of Quality: A Child Care Provider’s Perspective

The first child care challenge I faced was as a parent.

Like so many Vermont parents before and after me, when my second child was born, I struggled to find a slot in a quality child care program. With no other options, I started my own registered home program. My plan was to continue until my son went off to school, but after realizing children and the early childhood community were my passion, I chose instead to make a career out of it. I purchased a building in Morrisville, renovated it and opened a licensed child care center.

The second child care challenge I faced was as a child care provider.

My name is Tracy Patnoe and I am the owner and director of Mud City Kids Child Care Center, a licensed, 4-star child care and early learning program in Morrisville that serves 40 children, ranging in age from six weeks to five years.

Mud City Kids used to employ 18 people but staff turnover was a regular struggle, as was finding quality staff to replace those who left. Because of the pay and benefits, in one 4-year span, we employed three licensed teachers. In order to offer quality consistent care, we made the difficult decision to reduce our size. Today, we have eight employees.

One of the key components of quality at Mud City Kids is the small group size in each room. Though state regulations allow eight infants and toddlers for every two teachers, we set our limit at four children and one teacher. Our 2-year-old room has a group of five children with a teacher (state regulations allow 10 kids with two teachers) and our preschool rooms have eight children with a teacher (the state allows 20 children and two teachers).

We know small groups make a huge difference in a child’s development, but this significantly impacts our limited budget. At Mud City Kids, our infant and toddler program loses almost $32,000 a year and our 2-year-old program breaks even, which leaves our preschool program to try to make up the difference.

Another component of quality is the physical space we use. All of our classrooms have their own bathroom, sinks at the child’s level, a separate kitchen sink and counter for sanitizing toys throughout the day, lots of windows for natural light and floors with radiant heat, which is amazing for babies and toddlers playing on the floor. We have over three acres of fenced-in wooded and open land to explore. While this is what we want for our children, it comes with a huge price tag: $41,000 a year in mortgage payments and $9,500 in property taxes.

Another important aspect of the high-quality child care we offer is our food program through which we provide breakfast, lunch and afternoon snacks. We know from experience that when children are fed they are better able to learn. Before we offered breakfast, we saw a lot of tantrums and behavioral problems and we learned that some children were arriving in the morning having not eaten and unable make it until lunch. After we started serving breakfast, their behavior greatly improved.

We served 12,648 meals and snacks to children in our program last year at a loss of $24,000 (not including my personal time spent on menu planning, Child and Adult Care Food Program reimbursement claim submissions and grocery shopping). Every year, when we decide our budget, we are forced to choose between avoiding a significant hit to our revenue or caring for children who aren’t getting the nutrition they need.

Quality care also requires professional development funding and opportunities. With the revised licensing regulations set to come out this year, I knew I’d need a Bachelor’s degree in order to be allowed to direct the program I’ve operated for the last 11 years. I completed my degree after attending school 2–3 weekends per month for 16 months, and, after repeatedly struggling to find, hire and retain a licensed teacher for pre-K collaboration, I submitted a 375-page portfolio to the Peer Review Project to become a licensed early childhood teacher. This professional development left me with $26,000 in new debt.

Like many early childhood professionals, I rely on alternative sources of funding to afford the quality care Mud City Kids provides, but the amount and sources of funding often change, making them unreliable resources. For example, I was able to significantly increase quality through incentives offered through Vermont’s voluntary quality recognition and improvement system known as STARS but those funds shifted into the Child Care Financial Assistance Program, leaving me with $34,000 less per year in funding. I know I can’t ask parents to pay more because they have bills to pay, too.

I love so much about my job: the true love a child give us when she wraps her arms around our necks, the way a child’s whole face lights up when he smiles, and knowing we’re making a positive difference in each child’s life.

The work we do at Mud City Kids is important. Each new day, our quality care helps the children in our program move one step closer to realizing their full potential. It’s my wish that there will come a day when a majority of our society values our work enough to help make that care sustainable.

The Financial Stress of Child Care: A Parent’s Perspective

My story is a story familiar to most Vermont families with young children.

I live in Morrisville with my loving husband and our two sons. My oldest son, Tanner, is a happy, energetic, loving little boy who listens well and loves dinosaurs. My youngest son, Bentley is such a good baby who always seems to be smiling. My husband, Nick, is a hard worker and is the one who makes everybody laugh.

My husband and I are responsible Vermonters with good, full-time jobs trying to make ends meet while taking care of our children. Nick works about 50 hours a week as a sales representative for Farrell Distributing and I range between 35 and 40 hours a week as a cosmetologist. We need to work to support our family and to pay our bills, and in order to work, with no extended family who can support us, we send our children to child care. We’d prefer that the kids stay home with me, but we can’t afford that luxury.

My name is Stephanie Tetreault and this is my child care challenge.

We send both of our boys to Mud City Kids 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM Tuesday through Friday every week. Tanner has been going to Mud City since May 2014 and Bentley started going in June of this year.

When I drop off the boys at Mud City Kids in the morning, I feel comfortable and thankful for the quality care they’re about to receive. For starters, I know they’ll be safe there. The space is always clean. Tracy is an excellent boss who knows how to get the very best out of her employees. The staff always carry a clipboard and do headcounts multiple times a day. There’s a great big outdoor space that’s completely fenced in, which allows kids the adventure of exploring age-appropriate, natural playgrounds while always under a watchful eye.

I also know how beneficial this high-quality care is to the children’s development. The Mud City Kids teachers do so much for our boys. Tanner’s development has been incredible to watch. He can now count, he’s a great talker, he has manners that would make any mother proud, and, most importantly, he’s learned how to interact with other kids and to share. These are all things we’ve taught him at home, too, but when we can’t be there for him during the day, it’s reassuring to know Mud City Kids will be there. I can’t wait to see all the ways Mud City Kids will positively influence Bentley’s development!

I admit that we’re fortunate to be able to give our boys such high-quality child care. And yet, I feel anxious every day.

Our combined annual household income is $80,000. As a four-person family with two adults and two children, this means we earn approximately 330% of the Federal Poverty Level. And yet, since having children, we have been unable to save money, to afford family trips or a new vehicle, to put money into our home, or to buy the amount of groceries we’d like to. Nick and I live paycheck to paycheck. What’s one of the main factors for our financial stress? Child care.

It used to cost $376 a week to send our kids to Mud City Kids, which works out to more than $19,500 a year. Thankfully, in September, the Child Care Financial Assistance Program extended its eligibility requirements, which allowed us to receive 10% in tuition assistance. We now pay $339 a week, which is still roughly $17,600 a year.

I know that we can’t expect Mud City Kids to give us a discount. Tracy and her staff have bills to pay, too. It’s just frustrating to be living the life you wanted—a loving spouse, decent-paying jobs, amazing kids, good health—and to still feel overwhelmed, depressed and discouraged.

What’s equally frustrating for me is that my family is not alone. As I said before, our story is a story familiar to most Vermont families. Communities around the state are filled with homes struggling with the same child care challenges that we face. We have placed such an enormous financial weight on the backs of Vermont families to the point that those backs are slowly breaking.

It’s my hope that Vermonters will recognize that our state’s children, children like Tanner and Bentley, are our most important investment, and will join together to demand change.

Strengthening Families: Parental Resilience

Strengthening Families: Parental Resilience

Aricha Drury is an early care consultant for Child Care Resource, supporting Chittenden County child care providers to help make child care work better for kids, providers and families. She also teaches classes for CCR. She has an MEd in educational psychology from the University of Virginia and previously taught in 3rd grade, middle and high school, as well as in both center- and home-based child care programs. Aricha especially likes supporting providers around challenging behaviors and using positive language with kids.

Parental Resilience (from Strengthening Families Protective Factors framework): “No one can eliminate stress from parenting, but a parent’s capacity for resilience can affect how a parent deals with stress. Resilience is the ability to manage and bounce back from all types of challenges that emerge in every family’s life. It means finding ways to solve problems, building and sustaining trusting relationships including relationships with your own child, and knowing how to seek help when necessary.”

Parenting, even on the best days, is hard work. When life throws in challenges, it can be difficult to manage the stress and keep parenting well. When we are stressed, we are less likely to use positive discipline and be available to our kids when they need us. If stress and problems become overwhelming, it increases parents’ risk of using overly harsh punishment, being inattentive, or even abusive or neglectful of children. This creates a toxic stress environment for children, which disrupts the structure of the developing brain, increasing the likelihood of poor outcomes for the child. Therefore, it is critical that parents are supported during stressful times so that their children are given quality early experiences.

Strengthening Families is an approach to working with families that encourages the healthy development of children. The Strengthening Families protective factor, Parental Resilience, helps parents navigate challenges in their lives in order to reduce the likelihood of child abuse and neglect.

When we manage our stress, we can provide a safe, loving environment for our kids. Resilient parents—those who can “bounce back” from stress—have tools to manage the stress of everyday life. They recognize their own strong feelings like anger, frustration, sadness, or anxiety and handle them so they don’t get in the way of parenting. People who feel self-confident and believe they can solve problems and achieve their goals are more likely to bounce back when they run into problems.

Like most parents, when I am feeling overwhelmed by challenges or worries, it can make parenting much harder. I might be more impatient with my kids, become frustrated more easily, or be distracted and checked out. When something stressful happens, I have to find a way to recover and parent well despite the stress. It is helpful to have a “toolbox” of strategies that I know will reduce my stress level. For me that means taking a walk, having coffee with a friend, or taking some “me” time to read, listen to music, or just relax. This recharging time makes it easier to clear my mind, stay positive, and focus on solving the problem causing me stress. I am more patient and present with my kids and I am able to help them learn how to handle their own problems better.

It’s not always easy to bounce back from challenges, though, and it isn’t always easy to stay positive when things go wrong. Sometimes parents need a little help. Help might come from a spouse or partner, a friend, or a therapist or counselor. Child care providers can also support parents in times of stress and are key contributors to the Strengthening Families framework. Providers can help parents feel part of the community, connect them with resources and information, and work with them to set goals and find solutions.

Here are some ways child care providers can support parents:

  • Get to know the parents. Greet parents by name when they arrive in the morning; ask questions about their interests, activities, or hobbies; find out what they like to do with their kids when they aren’t in child care.
  • Encourage parents to participate in activities at the child care program such as an open house, art show, or spaghetti dinner, or by volunteering to read to children at drop-off or making playdough to share with the group.
  • Ask parents about their hopes for their children. When parents have concerns, work together to make a plan and set goals, then check-in regularly to see how things are going.
  • Make a special effort to connect with families who are new to the program or who might have a hard time connecting with other parents.
  • Offer information in a few different ways— newsletters, books, classes, discussion groups, blogs, photos, and handouts—to ensure parents receive it.
  • Offer a kind word and some encouragement; sometimes that’s all parents need. Warm smiles, sincere compliments, and kind words can go a long way to help someone feel more positive and hopeful.

In our state, thanks to generous funding from the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Grant and the Child Development Division, Vermont Birth to Five has helped to establish Strengthening Families projects in six regions: Northwestern Counseling and Support Services in St Albans, Kingdom Child Care Connection at Umbrella, Inc. in St Johnsbury, Suzy’s Little Peanuts in Springfield, Sunrise Family Resource Center in Bennington, The Lamoille Family Center in Morrisville and here at Child Care Resource in Williston. Each project supports approximately ten family child care providers to train them in building protective factors, make a strong connection to community resources and help to connect families to needed supports and services.

Parents and child care providers make a good team when it comes to raising kids. By caring for the whole family, providers support adults through the many demands of parenting. They give parents the resources they need to bounce back from family stress and parenting challenges to give their children the best chance at succeeding in life.

Vermont’s 2017 Early Educator of the Year

October 12, 2017  (Killington, VT) — The Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children announced the third annual Early Educator of the Year Award today at the Vermont Association for the Education of Young Children (VAEYC) Annual Conference held in Killington, VT. The award winner, Cheryl “Cookie” Danyow, of Addison, was named 2017’s Early Educator of the Year. Richmond resident Ellen Kraft was the award finalist. The Permanent Fund created the Early Educator of the Year Award to recognize and celebrate excellence in the teaching of Vermont’s young children to bring attention to the importance of high-quality care and early education.

“Besides parents, early educators are the first teachers our children have and their work lays an important foundation at the most crucial time of development in our children’s lives,” said Permanent Fund CEO Aly Richards. “By honoring outstanding early educators like Cookie Danyow and Ellen Kraft, we are demonstrating to all Vermonters what high-quality early care and learning looks like.”

Cheryl “Cookie” Danyow has been working with children for 30 years. She’s worked in a variety of settings – from centers to homes to schools – before opening her own home-based program, Mountain Road Preschool, in Addison.

Danyow’s program includes both an indoor and an outdoor classroom; hers is the first and only Nature Explore-certified early care and learning program in Vermont. “The philosophy of my program is to provide a safe, healthy, hands-on learning environment where children can learn and explore and expand at their own pace,” Danyow said. “I feel the most important thing I can do as an early educator is to allow the children to explore their environment safely and to know that they’re loved.” As the winner, Danyow received a $5,000 award and all expenses paid to the VAEYC conference, along with one national conference.

The award finalist, Ellen Kraft, is the owner of Honeycomb Kids in Richmond. Kraft said she and her staff focus on being positive influences for the children in the program.

“The adults, we are the curriculum … Making sure we are truly worthy of imitation is a huge part of what we do,” Kraft said. “My hopes for kids who come out of my program are that they know themselves, feel comfortable in their own skin and that they have the language skills and the gross motor skills and self-regulation skills to really be successful.” As the award finalist, Kraft received a $1,000 reward and all expenses paid to the VAEYC conference.

To be eligible for this year’s award, a home-based child care professional must have had at least four stars in the Vermont STep Ahead Recognition System (STARS), the state’s voluntary recognition and improvement system for early care and learning programs. Nominees must also have been providing care for at least three years, and must serve children age birth to 5.

The award selection committee was comprised of local leaders in Vermont’s early education field, including: Geralyn Barrows, 2015 Early Educator of the Year; Laurel Bongiorno of Champlain College; Kim Buxton of VAEYC; Chloe Learey of the Winston Prouty Center; Sheila Quenneville of the Vermont Child Care Providers Association; Betsy Rathbun-Gunn of Building Bright Futures; and Stacy Weinberger of the State Board of Education.

Each year, the award alternates between honoring home-based providers and center-based providers. For next year’s award, the Permanent Fund will be accepting nominations for high-quality center-based programs in Vermont.

Nominations Open for Permanent Fund 2017 Early Educator of the Year Award

Nominations are now being accepted

To recognize excellence in the teaching of Vermont’s young children, the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children announced the third annual Early Educator of the Year Award. In the third year of this award, the Permanent Fund will be accepting nominations for an outstanding home-based child care professional who has demonstrated a commitment to quality early childhood education.

“We want to recognize the unsung heroes that work so hard for Vermont’s children,” said Rick Davis, president and co-founder of the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children. “Besides parents, these individuals are a child’s first teacher. This award will honor an individual who has truly gone above and beyond to positively impact the lives of children, and has been a valuable resource for families.”

Through this award, the Permanent Fund wants to bring attention to the important work of early educators and emphasize the importance of high-quality care and early learning. The award alternates between honoring home-based and center-based programs each year.

This year, the top two finalists will be honored at the October 2017 VAEYC Conference, where one will be announced as the Early Educator of the Year and will receive $5,000 and all expenses paid to attend the VAEYC conference as well as one national conference. The runner-up will receive a $1,000 award, and all expenses paid to attend the VAEYC conference.

To be eligible for this year’s award, a home-based child care professional must have at least four stars in the Vermont STep Ahead Recognition System (STARS). Nominees must also have been providing care for at least three years, and must currently have infants and toddlers enrolled in their program. Individuals may self-nominate or can be nominated by others. The nomination period is now open but will close on May 1, 2017. Nominees will be notified of their nomination and must complete and submit an application to the Permanent Fund by May 31, 2017 to be considered for the award

An award selection committee comprised of leaders in early education and child development will review award applications and choose the two finalists. Committee members include:

  • Geralyn Barrows (2015 Early Educator of the Year);
  • Laurel Bongiorno (Champlain College);
  • Kim Buxton (VAEYC);
  • Mitch Golub (Vermont Achievement Center);
  • Chloe Learey (Winston Prouty Center);
  • Reeva Murphy (Child Development Division);
  • Sheila Queenneville (Vermont Child Care Providers Association);
  • Betsy Rathbun-Gunn (Building Bright Futures); and
  • Stacy Weinberger (Board of Education).

About the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children

Founded in 2000 by philanthropists Rick Davis and Carl Ferenbach, the Permanent Fund works to improve the quality of Vermont’s early care and education system primarily through the support of two statewide initiatives: Let’s Grow Kids and Vermont Birth to Five. Using a collaborative philanthropic approach, the Permanent Fund works with other funders, non-profits, community leaders and policymakers to improve educational outcomes, build stronger communities and make a lasting difference in the lives of Vermont’s children. The Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children is a supporting organization of the Vermont Community Foundation.

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