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Compensating ECE Professionals in the Manner They Deserve: A PA Early Learning Center’s Quest

February 7, 2023

In this blog, Damaris Alvarado-Rodriguez explains the strategies she uses to compensate ECE professionals in the manner they deserve.

Damaris Alvarado-Rodriguez

Damaris Alvarado-Rodriguez started in the child care business in 2003. Today she owns Children’s Playhouse, a high-quality, accredited child care program serving over 270 families at two locations in South Philadelphia, and expanding to a third location, in North Philadelphia, in 2023.

In 2021, she became CEO of Innovative Education Consulting, providing advisory support on the start-up of new businesses and enhancement of existing businesses in the Latiné/Hispanic community. In 2022, Damaris founded Latinos Educando Juntos, providing various supports to small business owners in the Latiné/Hispanic community, especially child care providers. She is a member of various boards and initiatives including the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Chamber of Commerce of Philadelphia, and the PHLPrek Provider Council. Damaris was awarded the Al Día Women of Merit Award, Entrepreneurship in 2021 and the Diversity and Equity Bronze Medal awarded by the Philadelphia Office of Child Development in 2022. She is mother to four daughters and a grandmother of two.

At Children’s Playhouse, we understand the importance of compensating the workforce fairly, respectfully, and equitably. But what does that mean and what does it take? And how can we not only attract new people to the field but offer them a career trajectory that culminates in leadership roles? My advisory team and I have put time in to answering those questions. The bottom line is this: we ask a lot of teachers, especially now with the influx of children with mental health issues. But even without that, they put so much time into the job beyond the hours spent in the classroom, and they should get what they deserve.

Revisiting the Salary Scale and Adding Benefits

To not lose our teachers to the School District of Philadelphia’s pre-K and Head Start program, I knew we had to come up with a solid plan. We investigated what the district was paying a brand new teacher, not trying to match it, but at least trying to come very close. We ended up creating a compatible salary scale for teachers with certifications and those with bachelor’s degrees on their way to certifications. We went back to the old Keystone STARS career ladders (our state’s Quality Improvement System) from years ago and plugged that in as well.

Further, we pushed not only on the salary base, but on the benefits we could offer. We now offer medical and dental, a 401K, and maternity, paternity, and bereavement pay. In addition, our teachers with bachelor’s degrees have summers off. These benefits are not common in our field, but our abiding goal is to take care of our educators and make sure they feel valued.

Our Good Fortune

I understand that a lot of providers don’t have the budget that we have because they don’t have the funding streams that we do. The fact is, our partnerships and contracts with various public funders–Head Start, Pre-K Counts, and PHLpreK—have helped us get through Covid and even to have an emergency fund.

We don’t receive any philanthropic funds through Children’s Playhouse, but I have been able to receive those dollars through one of the two other organizations I started, Latinos Educando Juntos, which supports small business owners in the Latiné/Hispanic community, especially child care providers.

Recruiting Assistant Teachers

It was challenging to create a strong recruitment plan for assistant teachers given that with just a high school diploma you can go to Amazon and make $18 – $22 an hour. So, I researched how we could provide more opportunities for folks to enter the ECE field at the associate’s-degree level. I applied for funding but was denied, so I funded it on my own. Using the Head Start family engagement model, I went into the communities–to churches, associations, events, and activities–and simply asked, “Who would like to work in child care? Who has a passion for children?” I was surprised to see how many people were interested.

I helped these community members get a CDA credential using funding allocated in our budget for professional development. In the end, we were able to hire eight new staff with high school diplomas. Some had degrees in their own countries that were equivalent to a bachelor’s degree here; they just needed the CDA to receive the ECE credits. And so, they entered the field through this opportunity I created based on the compensation and benefits they stood to earn and the opportunity both to bring their infants and toddlers to work with them and be off with their school-age children on holidays.

Building Leadership from Within

From last year to this year, we’ve seen about 95 percent less staff turnover. With our retention rate what it is, we are focusing now on growing our own leadership, i.e., providing in-house staff with Exceptional Bilingual Leadership Fellowships, which I created with two colleagues. We just completed our first cohort and I can really see the difference in the three staff members who went through it. We’re now starting our second cohort.

Covid’s Impact on our Approach

Our compensation and retention strategies have always been in place but post-Covid, we’ve pivoted to a more holistic approach. We were losing people who didn’t want to come back to work after making money just staying home. We wondered not only about how to bring them back but who to bring back. We only want people who are sure that this is the work they want to do.

Our strategy is “hire slow and fire fast.” Just because we need someone, doesn’t mean I’m going to hire anyone. You have to really be invested in the mission of the program and its growth, your own personal growth, and high quality, and you have to have a love of children. We became more intentional about this after COVID. We adopted the belief that the right person might not be a person with a diploma. Rather, it might be a person we have to invest in.

And the strategy has proven effective. During our NAEYC observation in September, we were so nervous because we had people who were brand new to the field being observed. But their classrooms received very high scores–in the high nineties. This was proof to me that our strategies work.

We’ll Keep Pushing

We still have a lot of work to do, particularly on offering opportunities that bridge the language gap. But it’s something we’re focusing on. If there’s one thing that defines us, it’s that we never stop thinking about how to refine our approach to compensating our ECE teachers as fairly as possible. We think they earn that consideration every day.

Check out the Improving Child Care Compensation Video Series to hear more from Damaris and other leaders whose work is covered in the Improving Child Care Compensation Backgrounder 2021.

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