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This article is the 10th in a series investigating the child care system in Mississippi.

What would it take for Mississippi to transform its child care system from one of the lowest ranked in the nation to one of the best?

The Department of Defense (DoD), whose services for children went from a struggling system to what many experts now say is the national gold standard of child care, may have the answers. The DoD prides itself on having high standards, holding centers accountable to meeting them and providing the support they need to do so.

Roughly 95 percent of the Department of Defense’s more than 800 centers — some in the U.S., some abroad — are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, or NAEYC. Compare that to Mississippi, where fewer than 30 centers in the state’s system — or about 2 percent of licensed centers — meet the basic criteria for accreditation, which includes meeting standards for curriculum, teaching and community relations.

In national surveys of state oversight and program standards for child care, the Department of Defense repeatedly comes out on top. In a 2013 report from the nonprofit Child Care Aware, the DoD’s child care system was the only one to earn a B, the highest grade awarded. Mississippi got an F, along with 20 other states. It was ranked 43 out of the 50 states, plus the Department of Defense and District of Columbia. (Child Care Aware works with the Department Defense to help military families find and afford care when they are not on a military base.)

“It is good news that the children of military families are in quality child care,” the report said. “It would be great news if the rest of the children in America could also be in quality child care.”

Related: Child care crisis: State’s weak oversight puts children in harm’s way in Mississippi

More than 95 percent of DoD child care centers are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Mississippi need not look far to find an example of what that quality looks like. The child development center at the Meridian Naval Air Station is one of the military’s many accredited centers. Each classroom has its own playground and each has an area where children can play house, with a mini stove and sink. The rooms are full of books, blocks, puppets, dolls and other toys and staffed by at least two teachers at all times.

Like many people on the naval installation, the teachers have a uniform. Teachers who have passed an intensive background check wear blue smocks. Before passing, teachers must wear red and are never allowed alone with children. The colors make it immediately apparent when a teacher without clearance is unsupervised

military child care
Deridre Odom, Child and Youth program manager at the Meridian Naval Air Station, says she embraces the high standards and accountability the military child care system has in place. Credit: Sarah Butrymowicz

On a March afternoon, the hallways at the center were lined with evidence of a recent unit on Dr. Seuss. Paper plates of “green eggs and ham” hung outside the toddler room. Photos of the preschoolers dressed as the cat in the hat covered their classroom door.

Inside the room, nine preschoolers sat on a rug bordered by numbers spelled out in English and Spanish. One of the teachers held up a plastic yellow clock and moved the hands from the current time — 2:35 — to 3:00, when the librarian would arrive to tell them a story. Some students counted aloud as the teacher moved the minute hand around the circle.

The teacher then moved on to the next activity: Holding up colored sheets she asked the children if they could identify the colors in English — which they shouted with glee — and then in Spanish, on which they were rusty. After some prompting, they remembered blue was “azul”, and red was “rojo.”

During the lesson, a little girl hit her classmate, received a swipe in return, and melted into tears. Without missing a beat, the teacher held off a full-blown meltdown by calmly calling the girl over to her. She reviewed with the whole class how they should sit on the rug — “criss-cross apple sauce” with their “spoons [hands] in the bowl.” Then she asked what they should do when someone breaks the rules and hits. In the end, the class agreed they should say, “I don’t like it. Can you please stop?”

After some prodding, the little girl agreed that she should use “nice touches” in the future and was sent back to her seat to apologize.

Such scenes in Meridian reflect not only the dedication of the Meridian staff, but also decades of hard work by the DoD. In 1982, the U.S. General Accounting Office issued a report which found that many Department of Defense centers failed to meet safety codes. Regulations and teacher training were both “inadequate.”

Related: High turnover and low pay for employees may undermine state’s child care system

In 1989, Congress passed the Military Child Care Act. It mandated — and funded — an overhaul of the system. The act required teachers to have significant training before they were allowed to work with children, increased teacher pay and based tuition rates for families on family income. The government began subsidizing the tuition payments to provide the centers with additional funding. Program standards were increased and a rigorous inspection process — four each year — was put into place to make sure centers were meeting them.

In fiscal year 2015, the government spent approximately $700 million on military child care and after school programs, including “staff salaries, equipment and supplies, food costs, program accreditation fees and support services,” according to DoD spokesperson Lt. Col. Gabrielle M. Hermes. In comparison, Mississippi budgeted $2 million for the Department of Health’s child care licensure office for fiscal year 2016.

In fiscal year 2015, the government spent approximately $700 million on military child care and after school programs.

Kristen Johnson, senior director of NAEYC’s accreditation program, said any state can follow in the military’s path if it commits to making the effort and spending the money. Change wouldn’t come overnight or cheaply, though. “It would just take a lot of planning and intentionality and collaboration among all of the parties within a state that are involved in the system,” she said. The military “made a system-wide commitment to support child care programs. They built an infrastructure to support teachers.”

The Department of Defense is the only child care system in the country that requires center directors to have a bachelor’s degree in or related to early childhood education, according to Child Care Aware.

Centers must also hire a “training and curriculum specialist” with a four-year degree in or relating to early childhood education. As the title implies, that person is in charge of working with the center’s staff to make sure they receive the necessary training and also implements the curriculum for all ages, including infants.

As in Mississippi’s licensed centers, child care employees at Department of Defense centers need only a high school diploma to be hired. But Department of Defense mandates far more initial training than the center-run orientation required by the Mississippi Department of Health.

The DoD requires all new teachers to complete 40 hours of training within three months of starting the job. The training covers items like CPR, health and safety and child abuse reporting.

From the beginning, new teachers also work their way through 15 online modules used by all DoD centers. To complete each module, they must take a test and do an assignment. All modules must be finished within 18 months.

Related: Why is ‘high quality’ so elusive in Mississippi’s child care centers?

Teachers are required to meet these benchmarks. “If they don’t reach the milestone, they’re no longer employed,” said Barbara Thompson, the director of the DoD’s Office of Family Readiness Policy, said. “It’s really very stringent. We don’t just take anybody.”

Deridre Odom, Child and Youth program manager at the Meridian installation, said that the Navy has an additional benchmark for its employees. They have six months to work through training that helps them meet the academic and social-emotional needs of preschoolers, including classes in curriculum development, child observation and developmentally appropriate practices.

The DoD requires all full-time staff to do at least 24 hours of professional development every year. The Navy mandates 48 hours, said Odom. In Mississippi only 15 hours are required.

The pay for full-time staff is set by the federal government and designed to be competitive with other similarly demanding jobs on an installation. Teachers are paid on average $15 an hour, according to DoD officials. That’s about $5 more than the national average and $6 more than Mississippi’s average.

“We pay them well and we encourage them” to get a degree, said Odom. The degree doesn’t mean an automatic pay bump, but it will make workers eligible for promotions within the center. Odom herself started as a part-time caregiver before working her way up the ladder.

“It is a lot, but we certainly don’t apologize for being thorough because we’re talking about keeping the environment safe for our children.”

Having well-trained staff is crucial in order to pass the four unannounced inspections DoD centers face each year. Three of these are conducted by personnel at the installation; one inspection looks at health and sanitation, another focuses on fire and safety, and the third is a multidisciplinary inspection that looks at the entire program, including education and staffing. The fourth inspection is done by a visiting team of officials from the military headquarters of the center’s corresponding branch — Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines. The officials spend hours in classrooms, watch food being prepared, and talk to teachers, children and parents.

Related: The race problem in Mississippi daycares

Thompson performed these inspections for 10 years for the Air Force. She described the process as a “very intense” 18-hour day for officials. “We’re observing the quality and interactions of the teacher, observing health and safety procedures,” said Thompson. After a full day spent at the center, she would bring records to her hotel room to check that teachers had taken required training courses or that student information was up-to-date.

The checklist for the service team inspection is 60 pages long and is based on the comprehensive standards the military has established for its centers. Branches of the military may add information to it or look for additional items. The Navy has expanded its checklist to 147 pages, according to Odom.

All inspection lists cover big picture items — making sure that the centers paperwork is accounted for, that classrooms have age-appropriate materials — and many specific details: Are toddlers given the chance to participate in family style dining? Are cleaning supplies appropriately labeled?

The inspections go far beyond health and safety, Department of Defense officials said. Inspectors make a concentrated effort to evaluate what’s happening in the classroom, from the daily lesson plans to how teachers interact with children of all ages.

For instance, teachers are supposed to “incorporate strategies for emotional support,” according to the DoD checklist. To determine this in infant classrooms, inspectors are advised to “[o]bserve that teachers respond quickly and appropriately to infant’s varying signs of emotions.”

Odom embraces the accountability as a means of proving she’s providing the best care possible for the children in her care. “This is a monster,” she said gesturing at the Navy checklist. “But it’s attainable. We can get it done.”

If a center is out of compliance on any item on the checklist, no matter how minor it may seem, workers must create a corrective action plan outlining definitive steps to fix the problem. The commander of the installation must sign off on the plan and confirm the violation has been fixed within 90 days.

“These inspections really are key to maintaining a level of quality,” said Carolyn Stevens, associate director in the DoD’s Office of Children and Youth in the Office of Family Readiness Policy. “It is a lot, but we certainly don’t apologize for being thorough because we’re talking about keeping the environment safe for our children.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Next week this series will look at lessons learned from reporting the Child Care Crisis series.

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