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Corporations, foundations join forces to improve quality of child care

October 16, 1997

Millie Campbell-Wingler, owner of a New Jersey child care center, is going to school this week to learn how to be an even better boss to her small staff.

That’s nothing new in business circles. But in the often-improvised world of child care, management training for directors such as Campbell-Wingler is all too rare.

That’s one reason why 22 major corporations will announce Thursday that they are joining forces with 16 foundations to fight what they say is a national crisis in the quality of early childhood programs. The announcement comes one week before a White House child care conference where quality will be at the top of the agenda.

``Now that two-thirds of American children regularly attend some form of child care, ... the need for quality early childhood programs is greater than ever,″ said Marilyn M. Smith, executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

She called the new collaboration ``unprecedented and timely,″ following recent research showing the importance of early education on brain development and the often poor quality of child care in the United States.

A landmark 1995 study of child care centers in four states, for example, found that children’s health and safety were threatened in one in eight facilities and most other programs were mediocre. Centers in California, Colorado, Connecticut and North Carolina were studied.

While no specific agenda has been yet set out, the business and philanthropic groups _ which include Aetna, AT&T and Xerox, along with the Ford Foundation and Carnegie Corp. _ plan to persuade more businesses to invest money in improving the quality of child care, both at the growing number of corporate centers and at independent facilities.

``Too many people today believe that child care is baby-sitting,″ said Chris Kjeldsen, vice president for community and workplace programs at Johnson & Johnson, one of the companies joining the effort. ``These young citizens are our future work force.″

Currently, corporations and philanthropic groups pay only about 5 percent of the total dollars invested in early child care and education, according to Smith. Governments and private sources _ usually parents _ pay the rest.

Since joining together as the American Business Collaboration for Quality Dependent Care five years ago, the 22 corporations have invested $9.4 million in programs to improve child care, especially by training staff and directors. In addition, about $10 million is expected to be spent on such efforts in the next five years.

The foundations, which are part of the Early Childhood Funders Collaborative, have spent $2.4 million on similar initiatives.

Campbell-Wingler is taking courses on infant care and management this year as part of a $1.2 million American Business Collaboration program set up in Atlanta; Dallas; Washington, D.C.; Tampa, Fla.; and at several cities in both New Jersey and New York state.

``For me as an owner, the courses give me ways to continue to encourage and support staff, and keep me up to date on issues concerning early childhood education,″ said Campbell-Wingler, a former public school teacher who started Creative Basics in Glen Gardner, N.J., with her husband in 1990.

Already, she’s shared telephone numbers with other center director she’s met at the courses and brought back material to share with her staff.

Such efforts don’t go unnoticed by parents.

``They’re constantly trying to improve. I saw that right away,″ said Lauri Hannon, an systems analyst who recently enrolled her 3-year-old twins at Creative Basics.

Hannon estimates that she looked at least 15 child-care centers when she was first ready to return to work 18 months ago, but says she was so shocked by the poor quality of the care she saw that she persuaded her in-laws to baby-sit until recently.

At one center, she saw a caregiver left alone with two dozen children during naptime, while other staff members went out to lunch. ``I wouldn’t even bring my cats there,″ Hannon recalled. ``It was a horror.″

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