In a big room, four infants squirm on the floor, rolling on their tummies or reaching out for the iridescent bubbles their teacher has blown with a bubble wand.
Even the smallest crawlers have tiny tables and chairs where they can practice eating and a big wooden play structure with ramps and steps to practice climbing. Teachers wash their hands before entering the classroom, and anyone who goes in the rooms where babies are crawling must wear covers on their shoes.
This is one of two adjacent day care centers that serve about 320 children at Robins Air Force Base. Here, the military offers top-notch care to the children of soldiers, military contractors and the base’s civilian employees. These are the only nationally accredited day care centers in Middle Georgia.
Day cares may become accredited through one of several national organizations with rigorous standards that far exceed Georgia’s. Requirements vary, but generally accredited centers must have better educated staff, provide more annual training, hire more teachers or reduce class sizes, highly develop lesson plans and provide a wider variety of equipment.
“Some would argue we have too many rules, but the result is we have one of the best programs anywhere,” said Matt Driver, chief of the Airmen and Family Services Flight for Robins. “If you or your spouse are deployed to Iraq or Iran, the last thing we want is for you to worry about the care your child has.”
The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies ranks states and the Defense Department on the quality of their child care standards and oversight. The military ranks at the top of the heap. Georgia ranks 49th.
In the Robins day care managed by Pam Martinez, the hallways are decorated with photos of the children and their artwork, most hung in frames at a grown-up’s knee level. Lesson plans are posted outside each room. A bank of flat-screen video-surveillance televisions inside the door allow parents and staff to see what’s going on in any room.
Down the hall, 1-year-olds snap a parachute up and down, laughing, while classmates giggle as they crawl through a canvas tube.
“If you have numerous activities going on, they don’t start fighting and biting because they don’t get bored,” Martinez said.
The child care provided by the Department of Defense is widely considered the gold standard for quality. That’s the result of the Military Child Care Act of 1989, which was passed after public outcry against the poor quality care the military had offered until then. The act required that most military child care programs be accredited by an unbiased outside organization, and it set up a rigorous inspection system.
Before the Military Child Care Act, the Defense Department appropriated $89.9 million a year for day care, according to a 2000 report by the National Women’s Law Center. The department’s fiscal 2010 budget for child care and youth programs was $1.1 billion.
That funding prevents the high costs of high quality from being passed on to parents. Child care fees are heavily subsidized, and parents pay on a sliding scale based on their income, Driver said.
He said all Air Force day cares are now accredited by the national Association for the Education of Young Children, which has the strictest standards in the nation. For example, Georgia law allows one adult caregiver for every six babies and one for every eight 1-year-olds. Each Robins day care teacher supervises only four children in both these age groups.
Robins day cares have far more regular inspections than others in Georgia. The Air Force conducts an unannounced inspection annually, and the base itself conducts several each year, including a multidisciplinary team examination of everything from menus to financial records, Driver said. The fire department and public health department check the day cares monthly, he said.
But even the base day cares aren’t perfect. A Jan. 6 Department of Defense inspection found that Robins had failed to conduct several of its annual required self-inspections on time. It found other violations, too, such as a lack of updated military background checks on employees and a director, and caregivers failing to check on sleeping infants as often as required.
An inspector also noted that activities listed on curriculum plans throughout the program didn’t reflect challenging, engaging experiences for the children. This happened while the day care had a vacancy in its curriculum coordinator position — a job unlikely to even exist at state-regulated day cares, which currently have very limited curriculum standards.
Teachers at the Air Force day cares are better trained and better paid than those in the private sector. Their salaries are equivalent to those of other Defense Department employees with comparable training and experience.
The YEAR National Women’s Law Center study found that the average wage for a civilian day care provider was below the entry-level wage of a caregiver employed by the Department of Defense, where even part-timers receive health insurance and retirement benefits.
Martinez said six of the 30 teachers in her building have bachelor’s degrees, and two have master’s degrees.
“If you come in with just a high school degree, we’ll immediately begin training you,” Driver said. “Within 12 months, you can move up two pay grades.”
All teachers are required to have at least a degree in child development, which they may acquire after hire, as well as first aid and CPR certification. The military will pay up to three-quarters of a staff’s tuition costs, Martinez said.
Teacher Aimee Hodge has spent 13 years in the child care field and about a year and a half at the Robins day care. She earned her child development associate degree with the help of the military.
“Here the standards are higher, it’s cleaner, we get more experience and training here. I wouldn’t go back to the outside world,” Hodge said.