Deputy City Clerk Beth McEwen helps a group of kids from Discovery Preschool put Valentine’s Day cards in Juneau Assembly members’ mailboxes. The cards were handcrafted by preschoolers from across the city to thank the Assembly for funding the HEARTS initiative.
HEARTS stands for Hiring Educating and Retaining Teaching Staff. Joy Lyon is Executive Director of the Southeast Alaska Association for the Education of Young Children, which runs the program.
“The HEARTS initiative offers incentives and encouragement for childcare providers to pursue their education so they can become better teachers,” Lyon said. “And it also encourages them to stay in their positions and be able to afford to work with the children that they love.”
When the Valley Youth Club closed in 2010 several groups came to the Assembly and urged members to address gaps in the city’s childcare services. The Assembly made the issue a top priority, and provided about $92,000 in funding for the HEARTS initiative in each of the past two years.
“We’re seeing some remarkable results,” said Lyon.
The program reimburses childcare professionals for university classes and other training in early childhood education. Workers can also qualify for wage incentives, up to $2.71 an hour for employees with a four-year degree.
Before HEARTS, Lyon says childcare centers in Juneau were struggling to stay open. Only one out of every seven workers met state standards, and turnover was close to 100 percent.
Today, Lyon says there’s one qualified staff for every four childcare workers, and the turnover rate is 67 percent.
“So they’re really staying,” she said. “Once they reach that level of education they have this awareness of how important they are to the lives of young children and families. And they see that there’s some incentive and some recognition from the city of how valuable they are.”
Assemblywoman Karen Crane chairs the Juneau Assembly Finance Committee, which will soon tackle the city’s biennial budget process. While she can’t guarantee funding for HEARTS in the next two-year budget, Crane says she’s encouraged by the apparent success of the program.
“The entire Assembly is aware of the fact that finding childcare in Juneau is hard,” said Crane. “There are not enough childcare providers. So seeing results from this is very gratifying.”
Back at Discovery Preschool, the kids are getting ready to head out into the snow. Teachers Assistant Christine Amor helps the little ones put on their jackets and hats.
Amor already has an associate’s degree in early childhood education, as well as a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies. After this month she’ll qualify for a wage incentive through HEARTS.
“Being an educator you’re always concerned about the fact that you put all this time and effort and love into your work, but you know, you don’t really get great money,” she said.
Of course, Amor says, she’s not in it for the money, but because of the relationships she has with the kids.
“But the incentive is very nice and I think it does encourage a lot of people to continue working in the field,” Amor said.
Lyon says the next step is getting more people to open childcare facilities in Juneau.
“Stabilizing the current programs is the first priority,” she said. “And then yes, we have some new family childcare providers that started their business because they heard of the HEARTS initiative.”
Lyon says Juneau’s 38 child care facilities have space for less than one in five children under the age of five in the Capital City.