Georgia’s day care rules cover everything from playground safety to TV limits, but they are also notable for what they don’t cover.
Georgia doesn’t check day care teachers for federal criminal histories or past sex offenses. Georgia allows less supervision for babies than anywhere else in the Southeast. And day care learning standards and educational requirements have been minimal.
But some of that is changing. During the last several years, Georgia has strengthened some of its rules, most notably adding a new education requirement for teachers and directors starting in 2012. Among dozens of changes were new requirements for safe and accessible toys, as well as activities that promote development.
The board of the Department of Early Care and Learning, also called Bright from the Start, will continue to look at strengthening day care rules, said Kay Hellwig, an assistant commissioner for child care services.
This spring, an Atlanta-based early childhood commission recommended that Georgia raise its minimum day care licensing requirements.
The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies ranks states, the military and Washington, D.C., on day care standards. In its 2009 report, the group ranked Georgia 49th, slightly worse than South Carolina and Alabama. At No. 11, Tennessee was the only Southeastern state to crack the top 20.
The association urged Congress to be more aggressive in holding states accountable for their day care regulations. “(We support) state flexibility, but there needs to be a floor to ensure that children are protected,” the report states.
Supervision is key to both safety and learning. For that reason, states limit the number of young children that each adult oversees. Georgia allows the highest ratio for infants in the Southeast: one adult to six babies.
Except for Mississippi, Georgia also has the highest rate for 1-year-olds, permitting one adult to supervise eight children once the kids can walk.
“Instead of focusing on minimal standards, we need to develop a culture of quality,” said Stacey Neuharth-Pritchett, president of the nonprofit Georgia Association on Young Children. “We could start with reducing our ratios to federal standards,” or one adult to four children from birth to age 3, she said.
When Macon mother Amber Peacock was seeking day care for her infant son last year, she chose a center that had only a few babies so he could receive more attention.
“I don’t know how well you can take care of six babies all the time by yourself,” she said. “I know it’s a business, so if they can do it, that’s what they’ll do. But I’m not really pleased with that regulation.”
A few local day cares deliberately keep more adults in the classroom than the state requires.
For example, Eagle’s Nest on Pierce Avenue has four adults caring for 14 babies, and the ratios in other age groups are better than required, too.
“It’s better to have that extra hand with babies,” said director Tshanghi Corey. “They all start crying at one time or all need feeding at one time, or it helps to have someone that can still be on the floor with the babies while three are being fed.”
Eagle’s Nest is one of the only day cares in Bibb County that has had no violations in the last year.
When South Carolina recently increased the ratio of adults to children in its day cares, the rationale stated that high ratios “improve quality for all children, but are most important for infants and toddlers.”
Worse ratios mean less supervision, which can result in harm to children. At New Generation Daycare & Learning Center in Warner Robins, the state investigated cases when a child’s face was heavily scratched or a child was bitten by a classmate, both without the teacher noticing. In both cases the state determined that supervision had been inadequate.
But improving ratios means hiring more teachers. “The problem is the cost that comes back on the provider in terms of needing more staff is a hardship, so it makes sense to do (state) incentives,” said Pat Willis, executive director of the advocacy group Voices for Georgia’s Children.
However, Georgia hardly has enough money to cover existing initiatives.
Holly A. Robinson, commissioner of the state Department of Early Care and Learning (also called Bright from the Start), said the state is not considering changes to staff-child ratios now because of the recession.
Child learning and parent involvement
Until very recently, Georgia day care rules focused almost exclusively on health and safety. Learning was barely on the radar.
A University of North Carolina study commissioned by the state found that Georgia’s early childhood care is weak in educational content, particularly related to literacy.
“We need a curriculum to see that the child is getting more than just baby-sitting,” Willis said.
Marie Peterson, owner of First Choice Day Care in Dry Branch, said she thinks state rules focus too much on equipment and not enough on educational standards.
“To me, the rules ought to be about: How many books do you have for the children? How many can read?” she said.
Macon mother Joy Moten-Thomas said she had higher expectations of day cares than most could deliver.
“I want a center that’s going to make sure my child is developing at a rate and meeting benchmarks my doctor says,” she said. “I want a curriculum-based atmosphere and somewhat of a schedule to keep my child challenged throughout the day.”
Georgia’s approach is changing. Last year, the board of Bright from the Start added new requirements for developmentally appropriate activities and lesson plans. These must encourage six types of development: social, physical, language, intellectual, emotional and cultural. All age groups are supposed to experience activities including dramatic play, rhythm and music, and nature and science.
Georgia is weaker when it comes to tracking what individual children learn. Fewer than half of Georgia day care center directors record each child’s progress, according to the University of North Carolina study.
Georgia day cares must allow parents access and post a few types of information, such as daily menus. The state also requires day cares to track infants’ food intake and diapers.
But some states call for more daily communication with parents. Tennessee requires that parents be informed each day of the time and amount of feeding, times of toilet use or diaper changes, sleep patterns and developmental progress of all preschoolers. This also ensures that caregivers are paying attention to each child all day.
The nationally accredited day care centers at Robins Air Force Base hold parent-teacher conferences twice a year and have a parent advisory board that meets monthly, said Pam Martinez, a director at one of the centers.
Educated day care teachers
According to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, 20 states don’t even require day care teachers to have a high school degree. Georgia, Florida and Mississippi are among them.
“I’m tired of high school kids and high school dropouts in (day care) rooms,” Moten-Thomas said. “The quality of your child care depends on the quality of the education and experience of the staff.”
The 2008 national parent poll found that 92 percent of parents believe child care providers should be trained in child development, first aid and CPR, child discipline, and recognition of the signs of child abuse.
The board of Georgia’s Department of Early Care and Learning voted last year to increase education requirements for day care teachers and directors. Lead teachers will be required to have at least a child development associate credential.
Soraya Miller, director of Child Care Resource and Referral of Southwest Georgia, said there were basically no day cares that were already meeting that standard.
“We still have directors that barely have a high school diploma and can barely read and write themselves,” said Miller, whose agency helps with training day cares in Houston, Peach and many other Middle Georgia counties.
Georgia is using stimulus money to provide 3,400 early childhood teachers a one-time $1,200 stipend toward earning their first credential in the early childhood field. Given that most of these workers are eligible for HOPE scholarships to cover the cost of their education, the payment basically becomes a bonus.
“(Day care teachers have) got fewer excuses now: You can get a (child development associate degree) online, and you can get it practically paid for,” Miller said. “The fact of the matter is, they’ve got to step it up or be out of a job.”
But the question is what happens after the stimulus money runs out, Miller said.
“We have to help them maintain these programs or it’s all for naught,” she said.
Some states, such as Florida and North Carolina, allocate state funds toward scholarships, bonuses or salary supplements to teachers and directors who pursue advanced child care credentials.
Even after they’re hired, day care teachers are required to complete professional training every year. Georgia requires 10 hours, the same as Florida but slightly less than other Southeastern states.
Nevertheless, 36 percent of Georgia’s lead teachers for infants and toddlers, and 42 percent of their assistant teachers, reported that they had not received 10 hours of training the previous year, the UNC study found.
Bright from the Start recently created a professional development registry to help child care workers to track their certificates, degrees and annual training.
“So they’ll be on the same kind of professional track that K-12 public school teachers have always done,” Robinson said.
Bentley Ponder, evaluation and research manager for Bright from the Start, said this will help the state identify gaps in the types of training offered in different regions and enable state consultants to guide teachers away from repeating the same training every year.
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.