Child Berth

Mimi Gray Wants To Transform Tucson's Child Care Standards.

"IT'S A FREE-FOR-ALL--no structure, no learning, just biting, slapping and poking," complains Nichole Hartman. She can find no affordable learning centers for her toddler, only care centers that rely on floaters to make up the staff.

The Pima College student has tried five different centers in two years. Three were too expensive. The others were unacceptable. So Hartman will have to drop out of school; ironically, she is trying to earn her certificate in early childhood education.

Every working day in Arizona, 60 of each 100 children under age 6 are cared for by someone other than a parent. This has become critical to employers, as workers' recruitment and productivity depend on child care that supports their schedules.

In 1994, the University of Arizona hired Mimi Gray to address child care problems for faculty and staff. Gray initially had high hopes for a center on campus, run as a lab school, but no department was prepared to take responsibility. Gray's Plan B was to use off-campus providers. But while exploring the options, she saw that child care problems were affecting the entire community. The best centers had waiting lists a yard long. Most others were so-so, and some were dull, dreary places that could possibly harm a child's potential.

"Space was poorly organized. Infant groups were too large. I saw rows of high chairs, infant seats and swings that do nothing for brain development," she recalls.

In Arizona, the state minimum guidelines for licensed child care facilities would allow an 18-year-old with a GED and six months of child care experience to become a "teacher-caregiver" for 15 four-year-olds in a room shared with others. The environment, "decorated with age-appropriate articles" such as bulletin boards and pictures, and "age-appropriate toys and equipment," pales next to one prescribed in Minnesota, which specifies exact numbers of books, blocks and inches at a table per child for each age group.

On top of this, Arizona's market rate (what parents are willing to pay) is about $500 a month, two-thirds of what cost analysts say it takes to do a good job.

"When standards and fees are low, you'll see more corralling and restraining methods," Gray observes. In Arizona, the focus is on protecting safety and health. Here, a child care center is a business. In Minnesota, it's conceived as education.

Pre-school age children are at a critical stage of their learning, Gray says, and families are shortchanged when the size of a group and the number of staff are guided only by the profit motive.

Gray, a careful planner, is soft-spoken but determined. She brought lots of front-line experience to her UA task. After earning a master's degree in early and middle childhood development at Ohio State, she managed a classroom for children with speech problems, ran a child care center in a farm community, worked with infants and toddlers in San Francisco, coordinated training and curriculum for an Oregon Head Start program, and worked on child care for a community college.

Here, Gray's level-headed reasoning secured what the UA urgently needed--financial assistance for low-income employees' child care expenses, and a similar fund for students. All university families now have access to a sick-child program, and advice on selecting child care.

But the vision has broadened.

Soon after she was hired, Gray started meeting with two groups that could help draft a community-based plan to improve child care, so that the UA was not trying to solve a problem it was ill-fitted to deal with alone. The Southern Arizona Early Childhood Network brings together child care administrators and staff. Southern Arizona Forums on Childcare and Families invites planners, social service professionals and community leaders to fuel the dialogue.

With their help, Gray says, the UA will provide on-campus child care within a year of securing funding; the money-raising effort is partly Gray's job, and a small component of the UA's recently launched Campaign Arizona.

The plan also calls for a laboratory for research on early childhood development, and training for child care leaders. Gray is seeking approval for an interdisciplinary graduate program so professionals who affect child care can learn, share their experience and earn advanced degrees. The curriculum will cut across studies from psychology to philosophy and from law to art. Twenty-three individuals already employed in child care fields are ready to enroll as a student cohort next year.

EARLY IN HER career, Gray came under the influence of Magda Gerber, the Hungarian educator who preaches that children are not weak and empty vessels, but are "strong and directed." This respect for children is at the core of the UA plan, inspired by a system in the northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia. There, the municipality (population 130,000) funds 33 schools that are attended by almost half of the preschoolers in the community, including children with special needs, or what the Reggio schools call "special rights." About a third of all infants attend.

How did this happen? Thirty years ago, Italian lawmakers entitled children ages 3-6 to free education, and in 1971 they provided subsidies to infant schools. Most important in this process were the parents, who demanded learning environments that would respond to their children's potential. Like Howard Gardner's theory of "multiple intelligences," the Reggio Emilia approach makes use of "the hundred languages of children," the variety of modes that children use to express their ideas. Visual arts play a large role, serving as tools for exploration, experimentation and reflection. Documenting each child's learning process is an important responsibility of teachers, who facilitate and support natural "wondering about the world."

Last April, Gray invited 100 local leaders to meet Lella Gandini, a representative of Reggio Emilia schools. Gandini also spoke to 300 of Tucson's early-childhood professionals. Some already were acquainted with the main ideas.

"This is not about art," says Pauline Baker, who taught art for many years. "It's about believing in children."

Baker, who has studied Reggio Emilia for seven years and visited the Italian schools, is the "studio teacher" for TUSD's Van Buskirk pre-school program. She works with four other teachers who have adapted the philosophy to their setting. This year, this social constructivist philosophy and practice are being taught in noncredit courses for teachers, offered through Extended University.

Meanwhile, a campaign to raise funds for the UA Child Development Center is quietly underway. An advisory board will be assembled this year, which will then assign organizing tasks within the university and all the way to the State Capitol.

"This has to be more than a family issue," Gray maintains. "Early education is not just about teacher-child ratios and nice educational toys. At the heart of it are deep, nurturing relationships with adults. Something this important should not be left to entrepreneurs."

Arizona's licensing standards for child care centers can be found at Tucson's first Child Care Summit will be hosted by United Way of Greater Tucson on October 26 at The Westin La Paloma, 3800 E. Sunrise Blvd., from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Registration costs $45; the deadline is Sunday, October 22. For information, call 903-9000.
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