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Seeking higher standards for day care

In a classroom in Ybor City decorated in primary colors, a roomful of students learns everything from the joy of arts and crafts to the value of a good nap.

Child's play?

Not to 41-year-old Vicki Brown, owner of the Kids R Tops day care center in Brandon. Brown is in this class, offered by the Hillsborough Public Schools' Central Agency, to enhance her child care skills and become recognized as an early childhood associate.

"I enjoy the input from other people, the feeling that we are not alone," Brown said during an exercise in which the group prepared a shopping list for a mock center that was poorly equipped. "I learn things, just as I learn something every time I hire a new person."

Business is booming at this and other training sites, thanks to new state guidelines for day care workers.

As of Saturday, centers had to have one employee with a Child Development Associate credential, or a similar one like the ECA, for every 20 children.

The rule is the last component in a child care bill the Legislature passed in 1991. New staff-to-child ratios and play space requirements were introduced in 1992. Also in 1992, required training for all child care workers was increased from 20 to 30 hours.

The CDA requirement, which involves at least 600 hours of experience and training, is intended to improve quality even more for the roughly 350,000 children in Florida's licensed day care centers.

"I think all of us in the early childhood profession are pleased," said Guy Cooley, executive director of Coordinated Child Care, a referral service for subsidized day care in Pinellas County. "Higher standards mean better care."

Some day care operators resisted the rule at first, largely because of the cost and inconvenience. Brown said she would have preferred to see the state spend its money on in-house training at individual centers.

But even critics are coming around.

"I'm getting more out of this than I thought I would," Brown said.

Licensing officials say they already are seeing results.

"My staff have told me that they have seen the quality of child care improve as a result of the training," said Linda Stoller, manager of child care licensing for Hillsborough County. "The work is easier when you know what to do, and the children aren't acting out as much."

The law allows some exceptions for people who have been working in child care for 10 years or more. And since the CDA itself carries a $325 assessment fee, many workers are opting for less expensive "equivalent" programs like the ECA, offered by colleges and trade schools.

The Florida regulation comes as researchers continue to paint the nation's child care system in a critical light.

In a widely publicized study this year, professors from the University of Colorado and three other universities found most child care centers did "not meet children's needs for health, safety, warm relationships and learning."

Only 14 percent of the centers studied were considered developmentally appropriate, and 12 percent were "less than minimal." When infant and toddler rooms were singled out, only 8 percent were good, and 40 percent were less than minimal.

Similar research on Florida centers was more favorable. Using the same methodology as the Colorado study, the Families and Work Institute found that 36 to 42 percent of Florida's day care children were in good programs.

The Florida study suggested that the 1991 reforms have led to improved conditions. Between 1992 and 1994, it reported, teachers became more sensitive and responsive, children began engaging in more complex kinds of play, and there were fewer incidents of teachers yelling, scolding, threatening or hitting.

But even with these study results, opinion is mixed as to how Florida's centers measure up to the rest of the nation.

Larry Pintacuda, child care chief for the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, said that although Florida has made strides in education and training, in areas like ratios and square footage "we are probably low to middle of the pack."

Many people assume cost is the biggest obstacle to good child care.

Centers typically pay their teachers and assistants $5 to $8 an hour, saying that a higher wage scale would price day care out of most families' reach. The Colorado study found that these employees _ 97 percent of whom are women _ actually give up $3,500 to $5,000 a year in potential wages by choosing day care over other female-dominated fields.

Turnover at day care centers can run as high as 50 percent a year.

But, while the low pay contributes to the turnover, it is not the only factor. People with experience in the field say burnout and mismanagement also play a part. They say it does not cost much to turn a mediocre center into a good one _ just about 10 percent more, according to the Colorado study.

Local trainers say many improvements cost little or no money.

At the Ybor center, teachers learn how to organize a room in a way that is conducive to learning, said trainer Janet Allyn. Dividing a large room into sections, for example, discourages children from running too much and creates a cozier setting for naps and story time.

"You don't want to put noisy things, like your blocks, in the same area as your books," she said. "You do not want your art area to be on the carpet, otherwise you will always be getting after the children for spilling their paint."

Allyn said her program also emphasizes how important it is for adults to interact with the children, to keep them learning and avoid behavior problems.

"You can have all the equipment in the world. But if you do not relate to the children, if you do not have a rapport with them, it doesn't matter," she said. "But if you do have a good rapport, if you read to them, talk to them, then that is more important than a lot of the stuff."

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