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This is the 15th article in a series investigating the child care system in Mississippi.
When parents leave their children at Mississippi child care centers, they expect the children will be cared for by qualified individuals in a safe, healthy environment. They most likely believe someone in the building will have some sort of degree relating to early childhood and that teachers will be supervised and supported by a director who is well trained and well versed in the best practices of child care.
But in child care centers across the state, directors — who must, by state regulation, meet the highest education requirements of any employee — are frequently absent from the centers they are supposed to be overseeing.
A Hechinger Report and Clarion-Ledger review of state records of 471 unannounced visits to child care centers in central Mississippi from February 2013 to December 2014, revealed directors were not present when licensing officials arrived at least 24 percent of the time. A fall 2016 Hechinger Report survey of 145 child care centers in 65 counties across the state found directors absent at half the centers.
Staff members at the centers gave a variety of reasons for the directors’ absence. Some were running errands, out for lunch, or picking up children. But other workers indicated their directors were gone more often than not: An employee at one center said the director was at a second job; another said the director was present each day for only a few hours in the morning; a worker at a third center said the director would be on vacation for more than a month.
In many cases, child care center directors also serve as the educational leaders of their centers — much like a principal in a school — working with the curriculum and coaching teachers. While many directors across the state work full time doing this and more, the frequent absences of some directors raises questions about who is accountable for ensuring a program runs smoothly, teachers are supported, and kids are safe and healthy.
Kristen Johnson, senior director of accreditation of early learning programs at the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), a nonprofit that promotes high-quality early learning, said the complex job of a director sets the tone for the rest of the program. “Without strong leadership it is difficult to provide comprehensive quality service as well as support staff to meet the needs of the children and families that the program serves,” Johnson said.
Research shows early childhood is an important time for brain development, and quality child care can provide the nurturing environment and educational opportunities critical for learning.
In many child care centers, especially those that are smaller, directors have many responsibilities, including running the administrative and financial aspects of the business. Experts say that someone in the building also needs to be in charge of maintaining a quality educational program by observing classrooms, training teachers and pitching in with child care whenever needed.
Marcy Whitebook, director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, said if state regulations for directors are written to apply to the administrative functions of a director only, then absences “may not be a problem.”
“But for these other purposes, it sends up a red flag,” she said.
Jim Craig, director of health protection for the Mississippi Department of Health, said in an e-mailed statement that “it is essential” that a qualified director or director designee “be present at all times to assure the safe operation of the center and to assure that appropriate care and supervision is provided to the children.” Since January 1, 2016, 35 facilities have been found in violation of this regulation by failing to have a qualified director or designee present, Craig added.
Despite the important role directors have, many states do not require directors to be present for the majority of a work day. Regulations specifying how much time a director needs to spend at a child care center vary by state, but Mississippi is not alone in allowing directors to spend significant portions of time away from their posts.
Arkansas regulations require a director be present at a child care center for a minimum of half of “the center’s primary operational day, on a routine basis.” In Indiana and Oklahoma, directors must be on-site for either 30 hours per week or 50 percent of the time of operation, “whichever is less.” Directors in Michigan need to be at their centers for a minimum of six hours a day.
Mississippi’s education and experience requirements for directors are higher than those for any other child care worker. They must have, at a minimum, one of three state-recognized credentials or some higher education coursework in early childhood.
Directors are allowed to leave a designee in charge of the center for “short-term absences,” but designees do not need to have the same qualifications; a high school diploma or GED is sufficient.
A designee, who must take the same three mandatory training courses as a director, can be left in charge of a facility for 24 hours per week, per state licensing regulations. That means that if a center is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., for instance, a director must be present for about five hours a day. A designee can also serve for up to 14 calendar days in a row once during a licensure year, but only so a director can take personal leave.
Several of the centers contacted by the Hechinger Report, or whose records were reviewed as part of the investigation, provided valid reasons for directors’ absences: They were sick, picking up after-school students or taking children on a field trip.
But in the majority of health department records, licensing officials did not note an explanation for a director’s absence. There were 112 instances of directors not being present when officials arrived. In about 40 percent of those occasions, the director arrived at some point during the inspection and signed the health department paperwork.
When Hechinger reporters called to conduct their own survey of child care centers, they were told by workers at roughly half of the centers at which the director was not present to try back later that day or the following morning. Often employees did not know exactly when the director would return. In some cases, the period of time for which employees indicated the director would be gone would violate health department regulations.
One center employee, contacted November 16, said the director would be on vacation until January. Another center worker said the director was out “in a meeting all week,” while a third said the director only arrived after 5 p.m., after finishing work at a different job.
A call to a center on a Wednesday yielded the information that the director was out, and would not be in for several days. “I’m not sure,” said an employee, when asked if the director would be in later in the week. “She doesn’t come to the school that often. I know she’ll be in Monday.”
Although the state sets a limit on the number of hours a director can miss, the regulation is difficult, if not impossible to enforce because licensing officials only visit a child care center a few times a year and stay for a couple hours. Johnson from NAEYC said that in absence of enforcement, the attendance of directors comes down to “the early childhood code of ethical conduct.” It is a director’s “ethical responsibility to make sure there is leadership” in a child care program, Johnson added.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children has some of the most stringent standards for quality child care in the country; its accreditation criteria are used to evaluate centers nationwide. Under those criteria, a child care program may have a part-time administrator or an administrator who “fulfills a dual role” such as a teacher and director in a program with fewer than 60 full time children and fewer than eight full time staff members. But in a program with 60 or more full time children and eight or more full time staff members, NAEYC recommends the facility have a full-time administrator or a manager who is directly supervised by someone who is qualified to be the director.
Center directors across Mississippi routinely invest more time than required by the health department in their jobs. Several directors called by the Hechinger Report were so busy teaching classes, serving lunch or cleaning they were unable to spare five minutes to take a phone survey. In one case, a director said she was taking advantage of naptime to scrub toilets and was “elbows deep in a commode.”
Directors who participated in the survey noted that their jobs were difficult. They said the work is becoming increasingly complex, especially as students are now expected to come to school prepared to tackle new, more challenging academic standards. The role of a child care center goes far beyond babysitting, experts and workers say, and center directors are often up against numerous odds, including finding and keeping staff members and securing enough funds to run their center.
Many spend long hours at the center every week, despite the fact that they earn little money. “I don’t come into an office and close the door,” said one. “I change diapers and wipe children’s noses and change clothes and you know, color and write and play and I cook … I have many hats on my head.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
Unlike most of our stories, this piece is an exclusive collaboration and may not be republished.