Friday, January 12, 2024

Canned Curriculum, Underfunded Childcare


In the mid-1970s, I graduated with a degree in education and a minor in history from a university in Arizona and could have taught high schoolers, but when my partner and I moved to a neighborhood near his work in his family’s business in north St. Louis, Missouri, the only jobs open in my field were in inner city schools in neighborhoods where there had been race riots over the previous summer. I was leery of my immaturity and my limited knowledge of Black history, so improvising, I walked down our hill and applied for a job-opening advertised at a childcare center. In a neighborhood confused between being residential or commercial, the former doctor’s office in an old brick house was squeezed between a service station and a commercial building, but faced modest brick homes across a busy arterial road. The house, now a daycare center, had a front door and second entrance door off to the side into the doctor’s former waiting room. 

I was hired on Christmas Eve day as the fourth teacher in barely a four-months’ time for the same group of now wherried children, exhausted from being a recycled class thrice over.  Turnover of teachers in the field of childcare has often been bested only by that in the field of garbage collection. A fact I did not know at the time.

I taught in three different classrooms at the center over a little more than a year. My first class of three-year-olds shared the living room/dining room with a group of four-year-olds. The first day I entered the classroom, I was confused to see the fours sitting in little wooden chairs backed against a wall facing their teacher who scowled at my interruption. I soon understood that the teacher had few materials and kept the children occupied and riveted with litanies of “Repeat after me.” The job site could have been the focus of a brilliant case study revealing the status of for-profit daycare in America of the time. After that first trial teaching the unhappy three-year-olds, but before my stint in the surgical suite, I was reassigned to teach the two-year olds in a former 10-foot-by-10-foot bedroom. 

On my very first sighting of that classroom, it reminded me of those sad advertisements for grim unfurnished rooms. Supposedly the furniture was stored every evening for ease of vacuuming, but it was difficult to tell if the dark brown wall-to-wall carpeting had been cleaned or not. I’d gingerly cross the rug and raise the blinds on the far windows to brighten the space, but even the industrial-smudged light of north St. Louis seemed reluctant to enter into that foreboding nook. The light lit upon the sills and ventured no further.

I’d slide one of the closet doors open and tussle a table out clanking and banging, followed by seven little chairs drug and bumped across the nubby carpeting. The classroom was ready. Two small shelves in the closet held a pitiable cache of toys for the seven twos who would shortly arrive, be unbundled by their mothers (always mothers), and left to toddle about upsetting the chairs and sometimes me.

Once, I skipped uncloseting the table and chairs and we roustabouted unhindered by any furnishings. It was better. One of the un-tabled days I recall quite fondly. We were doing some kind of physics lessons with Campbell soup cans and ramps. Canned curriculum. I don’t know what the parents thought we did all day in those empty rooms.

The former doctor’s surgery suite was the opposite of the two’s room. It was sterile with low hanging florescent lighting blinging off the high, white-tiled walls—perfect for operating. I’d set my tools on the table. The Crayola’s colors seemed extra riveting under the fluorescents, particularly the blood red and vein blue. Jumbled in an old and quite unsanitary cigar box, the crayons were mere nubs with their paper slipcovers mostly missing. Next to them I laid a pile of Xerox pages. These were the only tools provided me for the delicate operation of teaching ten three-year-olds every morning for many months.

My skill of delighting the two-year-olds, earned me the childcare center’s position of morning supervisor, a lovely title seeming to convey that I would be responsible for the sun rising over the city or the dawn breezes wafting off the nearby Mississippi River beyond the railyards. I was na├»ve to accept the position.

Every state has licensing regulations. Some in the 70s were so minimal that the only requirement to become a preschool-aged teacher was if you thought you might like to become one. The field is better regulated now and the licensors have more discretion to shut down centers providing inadequate care. That is if they can catch them.

The morning I became aware of the childcare center’s cheating and hence the morning my administrative duplicity began, I was teaching in surgery. The owner swished behind me hurrying through my classroom to the little hall just beyond where there was a doorway to an attic classroom of four-year-olds. Moments later children flowed down the stairs, their momentum momentarily frozen when the first child saw me, uncertain for a nano second if I was the one they were all to avoid. Their hastily donned coats were askew, flapping open as each in turn pivoted at the bottom of the stair while they glanced back at me with their silenced stiff faces. Their teacher hustled them through the former doctor’s waiting room—itself another classroom— and out into the chill air to walk aimlessly about until the unannounced visiting licensor had taken her authority elsewhere. Late for lunch, the children returned and jostled noisily back up the stairs to their unlicensed garret.  

A half a century on, there is more funding for early childhood programs, licensors, and tax credits for parents so they can afford to pay higher fees at better stocked centers. Still, the funds are often not enough. If you Google a former doctor’s office turned childcare center in an old brick house in north St. Louis, it is still a childcare center, looking forlorn between the now boarded-up service station and plywood-windowed commercial building. Fortunately the air is cleaner due to such things as the Clean Air Act, so possibly the back bedroom gets better light. Some things change. 

I wonder what the attic is used for. State filings indicate the center is now licensed for twenty-four children. (In my day there must have been closer to fifty-four children.) But the current tuition for a preschooler at the center is $500 per month. A modest amount. Luckily for the teachers, Campbell soup cans are still available and cheap. 

Postscript: I moved on to teach in a better-funded preschool the next year and then enrolled in a master’s degree in early childhood education. When I eventually became the director of newly-founded childcare facility on a college campus and stayed twenty-seven years, I leaned on what I had learned at that first center. Retaining staff, better funding, and having environments “dense with potential” were my goals. I had learned my lessons early on.