Cyndey Busbee began campaigning for better local day care at about the same time she jerked her son out of a center she deemed dangerous.
The center, now closed, had a good reputation for its Montessori program and was a popular choice for downtown professionals with children. Called First Street Arts, it was run with the help of AmeriCorps volunteers.
But Busbee’s son, now 9, wasn’t doing well there. The director was calling regularly to say he wasn’t behaving, Busbee said. In turn, he would come home with small injuries and complained that the teachers were mean.
Then Busbee met the director for a conference about her son’s behavior.
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“I looked out the window, and there were six or seven AmeriCorps teachers chatting on the playground while tens of kids are in a pile beating each other with chairs, including my son,” she said. “And I thought, ‘Oh my God, why didn’t I believe my kid?’ ’’
Busbee wrote a grievance letter to the state about the day care, and she started a broader effort to inform parents about how to evaluate day care quality.
“People don’t think of it like leaving your child with strangers, but it is,” Busbee said. “It’s leaving your child with strangers.”
Busbee was the chairwoman of the early childhood committee of Education First, a nonprofit advocacy group. Founded as an offshoot of the chamber of commerce, Education First identified early childhood care as a weakness in Bibb County five years ago.
Georgia childhood experts say the state’s parents often don’t expect much from early childhood care and don’t know what to look for in a day care center.
“I think there’s a big misunderstanding about what child care is,” said Stacey Neuharth-Pritchett, president of the nonprofit Georgia Association on Young Children. “It’s not baby-sitting. It’s social and emotional development.”
Parental expectations for day care may be influenced by the conservative, traditional culture that still dominates in Georgia, said Neuharth-Pritchett and Pam Tatum, the CEO of Quality Care for Children.
“I think there’s still a mentality in Georgia that mothers ought to be home to take care of our kids,” said state Rep. Kathy Ashe, D-Atlanta, who serves on the House Children and Youth Committee. “It’s not really possible.”
And it’s not reality. About 65 percent of Georgia families use early childhood care, according to the Department of Early Care and Learning, also called Bright from the Start.
And the demand comes from parents across income levels and backgrounds. For example, a 2002 U.S. Census report showed children were just as likely to be served by a day care center if their parents were married as if their parents had never been married. And almost a third of stay-at-home moms were using some form of child care outside the home on a regular basis.
Parents need help
Parents do have some tools for evaluating day cares, but they can be hard to find — and use.
The Bright from the Start Web site offers a database where parents can search for day cares and check compliance records. However, many parents complain that finding those reports is difficult and interpreting them even harder.
“I shouldn’t have to go 50 places to find out if somebody’s been abducted from my child’s day care center,” Busbee said.
Macon mother Joy Moten-Thomas said the state should make day cares post their violations. That’s a requirement in Alabama and some other states.
“Even if (the information) is online, that’s assuming everyone has a computer, and that’s not fair,” Moten-Thomas said.
When Moten-Thomas asked her eldest son’s day care for copies of its licensing report, the director refused. “Some of these day cares will intimidate the hell out of you if you ask,” Moten-Thomas said.
When Amber Peacock was searching for a day care for her first child last year, she tried to look at the state’s information online, but she said she found it frustrating. She didn’t find the many reports showing violations at Early Trails Day Care Center on Forsyth Road, where she placed her son. She almost had to move him the first week because the center seemed about to close. (It was bought by a new owner, who has renamed it Children’s Retreat.)
Quality Care for Children runs a toll-free number that can help parents find nearby licensed day cares. But its consultants are not allowed to recommend a specific center or steer parents away from poor ones.
“That was useless,” Busbee said. “They were so neutral.”
In the end, parents may just need to pound the pavement.
Tommy Neesmith of Macon and his wife spent hours visiting day cares and interviewing the staff before deciding where to place their two children, he said.
“At what point do parents become accountable for placing their children in facilities that do not meet the proper standards?” he wrote in an e-mail. “Convenience has its price. ... If child-care searches were treated like job, home, and religious affiliation searches, then a lot of these (bad day cares) would not be in business.”
What parents are looking for
Consultants at Quality Care for Children do offer parents a checklist for evaluating a day care. But Tatum said many parents just want to be given a day care’s phone number, then get off the phone.
Usually, she said, parents’ first — and sometimes only — question is about price. Parents interviewed for this story often said they looked at only one or two day cares, based primarily on price and convenience of the location.
That’s understandable in today’s economy, given that many families spend more than 10 percent of their income on child care, according to Census data and university research.
When Macon nurse Sarah McGill was looking for a day care for her daughter last year, her first criteria were price, distance from home and cleanliness.
When she visited the day care she chose, the first thing she noticed was the smell: the scent of cleaning products, not dirty diapers.
Other pluses included relatively new playground equipment and a pool behind a privacy fence. McGill liked that the 1-year-olds sat at a little table to eat and understood where forks, spoons and plates go.
But partly, she was winging it. “This is my first child,” she said. “I don’t really know what to look for.”
Lacking other guidance, some parents take a friend’s recommendations. But that’s not always a guarantee, either.
“One mother will say to another: ‘I really love how that center treated my child. They really loved my child,’’’ said Holly A, Robinson, commissioner of Bright from the Start. “Well, they need love, but they also need letters and numbers and literacy and playing with developmentally appropriate toys and activities.”
Other parents assume that expensive day cares in “the right part of town” are bound to be good, Busbee said. But she called day care “the great equalizer” in Bibb County: Poor-quality day care can be found in any zip code and at any price range.
“You can pay all you want on the north side (of town), but you’ve got to look at the quality of these centers,” Busbee said.
Lisa Garrett, retired early childhood director for Bibb County schools who now teaches at Mercer University, found during her doctoral research that expensive private church schools in Bibb County didn’t always offer the higher quality education that parents expected.
In some cases, low-income parents scrimped to send their child to an expensive church-based preschool, but their kids didn’t do as well as those who went to cheaper day cares, Garrett said. “It was really sad,” she said.
And Tatum emphasized that even a good program can go downhill, so parents need to continue checking inspection reports and dropping in.
Although rare in Middle Georgia, some day cares allow parents to monitor the classrooms remotely.
Mother Kendra Felder of Centerville said the camera system at Acquire Wis-Dom Daycare and Learning Center in Centerville allows her to check online to see what’s going on in her 2-year-old’s classroom live throughout the day, giving her more confidence in the care.
Acquire Wis-dom owner and director Bobby Thomas said, “That sets me apart from everyone else, because I’m not trying to hide anything.”
Lessons from a working mom
When Joy Moten-Thomas was a new mom, she enrolled her son in a day care recommended by a friend. She later moved him after learning of its many rule violations.
“I learned after that, the better day cares have waiting lists out of this world,” Moten-Thomas said. “So when I was on maternity leave looking for day care, I was way behind the eight ball.”
She said she also didn’t know she could basically interview day care directors about their centers.
After her first bad experience, Moten-Thomas visited day cares all over town, armed with a checklist, and watched how the adults worked with the children.
“For example, I observed a day care where they put out lunches for 2-year-olds and didn’t help them at all,” she said. “The kids that didn’t know how to feed themselves didn’t eat.”
Moten-Thomas says she thinks the educational experiences at the day cares she eventually chose are part of the reason her son, now 11, performs ahead of classmates at school.
She wasn’t so fortunate when it came time to send her younger son to day care. By then she was a single mom and could afford less, she said.
Moten-Thomas chose a church-based day care where she knew the staff, but she found it lacked structure. Her son struggled to make the transition to prekindergarten last year, she said.
“When he was put in an atmosphere with boundaries, we had a hell of a time just reeling him in,” Moten-Thomas said.
Look for learning
Tatum said parents rarely voice interest in the learning environment at day cares until their child is at least 3. Even then, she said parents often don’t understand what learning looks like at that age.
“Because your kid can count to 10, that doesn’t mean they understand what the number represents,” she said.
Tatum said most parents tend to be too “wowed” by equipment, while paying less attention to the more important quality of how the teacher interacts with the children.
Chuck Thompson, whose third son is in day care now, said his perspective has changed since his eldest son started. “I thought we were paying them to baby-sit,” he said. “Now, I’d definitely want to know more than price. What are you going to be doing with my child during the day?”
Busbee lamented that more parents don’t have higher expectations: “With day cares and nursing homes, you’re looking at the two most vulnerable populations, and you give it the smell test: ‘Looks clean. No one’s screaming. Good enough.’ ’’
The Georgia Coalition for Early Education, a new Atlanta-based nonprofit, is focused on increasing public understanding of the importance of early learning, as well as boosting parental expectations about quality.
“This is a conversation that’s occurring at the national level in every state,” said Stephanie Blank, who chairs the coalition’s board. “We’ve got to create that tipping point the same way that it happened with cigarettes or seat belts — as a cultural change. That’s the point we’ve got to get to with early learning.”
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.