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A calling to teach

Christine McCall
A calling to teach
Mary L. Reed founded the Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children (BTWIC) in 2002 in hopes of bettering early childhood education and care for all children in Massachusetts. The Initiative is looking to bring its recommendations from its most recent study, “The State of the Early Education Workforce: Barriers to Access and Advancement,” to legislators at the Statehouse in the near future. (Photo: Mary L. Reed)

Following her mother’s footsteps, Mary L. Reed is working for the children – and their teachers

Like mother like daughter.

A high value was placed on children and education in Bessie Tartt Wilson’s home. She opened her first childcare center in 1946 to help serve working families in Roxbury.

After growing up in a family that’s been involved in childcare since the 1940s, it comes as little surprise that Mary L. Reed, Wilson’s daughter, has a deep-seated belief that every child deserves quality early childhood education and care.

Reed is using what she knows best to fight for children and equal access to education, especially for those living in low-income, inner-city communities.   

The family business — Tartt’s Day Care Centers — has survived the test of time and remains Boston’s oldest, minority-owned childcare business. Reed was involved at Tartt’s Day Care Centers from a young age and led them for nine years, before deciding to take a more active role in education policy and reform.

As a result, she founded the Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children (BTWIC) in 2002 after her mother’s death as a way to honor her mother’s lifelong work that began more than 60 years ago of providing quality education and care for low-income children and families.

The mission of BTWIC is: “To strengthen early education and care for children with the greatest need through research, policy development, communication and advocacy.”

Since its founding, the Initiative has studied the quality of education and care in many of the poorest communities across the state. The Initiative has also raised awareness among legislators on Beacon Hill regarding the issues these children and families face in securing and maintaining quality education.

One of the many questions BTWIC works to answer is: How can we change the dynamic for families so they can have continuity of care?

Back in 2005, BTWIC and a team of researchers conducted the study, “Keeping the Promise: A Study of the Massachusetts Child Care Voucher System,” which examined the effectiveness of the voucher system and the challenges faced in implementing it. The study produced a number of recommendations for the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, some of which included:

• Lengthening the certification period of child care vouchers from six months to one year.

• Supporting families and easing the administrative burdens they face.

• Increasing reimbursement rates as a means to enhance quality and reducing administrative burden for providers.

These efforts were not in vain as the first recommendation was successfully implemented in October of 2006 and has made a difference for more than 64,000 children and working families in the Bay State who are served by childcare centers, as well as those who are now on waiting lists.

The report also ensured that families with limited English proficiency had translated materials and live translation services available to them. Administrative burdens for families and agencies were reduced with the elimination of the requirement to provide the same documents to multiple agencies.

More recently, Reed and her team at the Initiative have compiled a study to assess “The State of the Early Education Workforce: Barriers to Access and Advancement.”

 The study details issues involving compensation and provides suggestions on how opportunities for professional development and access to continuing education can be improved for childcare providers.

In 2009, BTWIC held seven town meetings in New Bedford, Boston, Springfield, Cape Cod, Worcester, Lowell and Lawrence. The team compiled its research from these meetings, at which more than 600 early education and care educators and administrators shared their thoughts on educators’ compensation and the barriers they must overcome to attain a higher degree.

The major findings from the study confirmed that early childhood educators are overworked and underpaid.

On average, Reed says that her team found that early childhood educators are making an average of $25,000 per year. Given that income, it is difficult to live in any urban area, especially Boston.

Reed said many educators have difficulty taking care of their families and paying bills, even with a second job. The report revealed that 32 percent of teachers receive some form of government assistance, coming in the form of food stamps, Women, Infants and Children supplements (WIC) or free/reduced lunches for their children.

Attendees at the meetings filled out questionnaires and 12.4 percent said low pay was the main reason for wanting to change careers. Because of a high turnover rate in the field, children are the ones left to suffer because of the decreasing number of trained educators.

The report cites, “lack of appropriate compensation causes personal and professional stress, embarrassment, and low morale. These outcomes all affect children who rely on continuous care from happy early childhood educators.”

A common misconception Reed says is that early childhood educators are thought of as babysitters. That is simply not the case as early childhood education provides the foundation for a child’s future success in school. “They [early childcare providers] don’t get the recognition they need,” Reed said. “We can raise the bar around awareness.”

As for getting a degree, respondents were frustrated by the process and all the red tape they have to navigate. The report says that early childhood educators feel their years of experience are ignored when it comes to transferring their work experience into college credit.

 The questionnaire revealed 59.2 percent of the respondents need scholarships in order to afford going to college and less than 13 percent receive tuition benefits to attend those institutions.

Reed said that she and her colleagues will be working very hard over the fall and winter to draft recommendations to bring to legislators’ attention at the Statehouse. “We think we have some good dialogue going on,” Reed added. “We’ve been the voice for the voices.”

 For more information about BTWIC, visit www.btwic.org.