Last week, as we blogged, providers, advocates, and government officials shared their perspectives on early education and care with the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education.

Among them was Donna Denette, the executive director of Children First, an early learning center in Western Massachusetts.

In her testimony, Denette gave a powerful account of the strength she and colleagues across the state are mustering to handle persistent challenges. Here is some of what she said:

“Before I start, I want to acknowledge the fact that my simply being here today already indicates how privileged I am. It means that I have enough staff to cover the day without me. It means that I have a strong, supportive program leadership team to address the challenges that will occur today. It means that I have amazing teachers doing amazing work with children who have the level of needs that we have the training and resources to meet. And it means that I can afford to take this day and come here from out in the 413 [area code] to be with you. Not everyone is so positioned.” 

“Our doors open at 6:30 AM and close at 5:30 PM. We very rarely close, and we have been proud of the role that we play as part of the safety net for our families and our community, supporting our economy, and helping to ensure that families can earn an income that leads to stability, prosperity, and health, by offering affordable childcare. We are also there for our children, offering a place filled with wonder and joy, with educators ready to nurture the critical neural development occurring for our youngest learners. Parents deserve high-quality, affordable, accessible childcare. Children deserve a high-quality early education. We proudly offer both.”

“We have and will continue to hear so much about the number one challenge facing providers — attracting and retaining a workforce that ensures quality and stability. This job has gotten harder and harder, not only for the educators, but also for the program leadership. When asked the number one challenge that makes ECE program leaders question remaining in their roles, my colleagues respond that it is the workforce crisis.”

“Our budgeted payroll line item has increased 44% since FY19 – from $680,000 budgeted annually to $980,000 (compared to an increase of 19% in income, not counting the C3 grant, and a 29% overall increase in expenses). The main factors for the payroll increase have been annual across-the-board raises to avoid wage compression while keeping up with Minimum Wage rates, stipends, bonuses, and increased benefits to attract and retain high quality educators, more requests for time off from those educators, and a commitment to maintaining the levels of quality that emerged during the pandemic.”

One reason for the increase in salaries was to be able to hire enough staff to function during the pandemic, Denette says. There was also a huge demand for program spots.

“One of our teachers converted our gym into a classroom for us, and we were able to offer all 60 preschool slots by having 4 classrooms of 15 rather than 3 classrooms of 20. Instead of 6 teachers and aides, we then needed 8 teachers and aides. We could not have even considered this solution without the C3 Grants. And the lower ratios have been better for children and better for their teachers. There is a cost to quality. And we have an opportunity to reexamine the ratios that lead to quality as we take into account the changing needs of the children in care.”

“I have been leading our organization for almost 25 years. This role has always been a demanding, fast-paced, stressful one with a tremendous level of responsibility and trust. Many centers are guided by the passionate commitment of long-term leaders. As a group, we are known for figuring it out, making it work, never giving up. We rarely ask for help or show any signs of weakness. So many people depend on us that not figuring it out just isn’t an option.”

“The effects of the COVID crisis have been so impactful that I worry deeply about the well-being of our leadership. My Board recognized the importance of being involved on a wider level and urged me to pursue advocacy opportunities. The pandemic moved that mandate to a higher priority, and I found Strategies for Children’s 9:30 Call (which I attend religiously), as well as connecting to our legislators, to the Mass Commission on the Status of Women, and to others on behalf of myself and my fellow directors.”

Denette also explained that the “three biggest challenges” she and her colleagues face are:

• ensuring sustainable budgets

• the workforce crisis, and

• meeting children’s developmental and mental health needs

“The C3 Grant line item is critical to our creating that sustainable budget. Without it, we would need to make difficult decisions that would impact quality of care, positive student outcomes, and educator retention and/or chip away at our operating reserve safety net.

“Quality programs deserve:

• “To be treated as a public good and valued and compensated as an essential element of our economy, resulting in sustainable budgets that do not overburden families and cover all aspects of quality care and education.

• “To achieve pay parity with their K-12 counterparts, including compensation for the extraordinary coverage of days and hours provided annually.

• “To be part of a cooperative, supportive, respect-based relationship within each child’s safety network of grown-ups (families, pediatricians, support service providers, DCF, the local school district, etc.). 

• “To be treated with trust and flexibility by EEC (as we were during the COVID crisis) and consulted in the evaluation, planning, and decision-making for our field.”

Denette concluded with gratitude and an invitation:

“Thank you for the work that you continue to pursue on behalf of early childhood. Thank you for how deeply you are investigating the many aspects of our mixed delivery system. And thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my perspective, and my experience and expertise with you today. I welcome members of the Committee to visit our Center and learn more about the work that we do.”

Denette’s full testimony is posted here.